The Melancholy of Looking at Photos of Our Younger Selves

The process of ageing is both invisible and inexorable. The day to day changes – of hair slowly greying, skin gradually wrinkling – become apparent only across a lifetime. It is often quite striking (and even emotionally destabilising) to see photos of our younger selves and begin to grasp the physical and psychological gulf growing greater with each passing day.

How innocent we were, how naïve. With the benefit of hindsight we are humoured by the knowledge today of what we couldn’t even imagine back then. The injuries, the pain, the suffering; but also the joys, the hugs, the wonderful family dinners – there is so much waiting in the future for this self.

A strange melancholy cannot but help arise. We feel so intimate, yet estranged from the person looking back at us. It is us, sure, or at least, once upon a time it was, but we are so different now; older, wiser, more jaded. If only we could go back and tell our younger selves to take that job offer or not to lift that weight. Imagine all the unnecessary suffering which might have been avoided as a result. But, there is no going back, and this fact haunts us. The School of Life writes eloquently that,

We may be moved at the sight of this little person but also – probably – somehow deeply saddened as well. How much of life’s suffering this tiny thing didn’t yet know! How much pain they still had ahead of them! 

There is a certain innocence in these photos. Heavy doses of despair not yet dealt out, second servings of misery not yet put on the plate. Life has not yet done its job of corrupting us and transforming us into the bitter souls who now look at old photographs of ourselves with a mixture of nostalgia and envy. 

They had no clue – that sunny afternoon in the garden of the old house, a few hours before it would have been time for a bowl of animal-shaped pasta and a strawberry yoghurt for tea – what fate had in store. 

How little they could suspect of the divorce, the move to the smaller house, the bullying, the loneliness, the unrequited love, the guilty feelings around sex, the career mishaps, the trouble with the liver, the realities of marriage, the financial anxiety, the romantic betrayals, the tetchiness, the ugliness of age, the persistent anxiety and fear and the troubles of child raising.

There was a time when learning how to tie shoelaces was the most pressing task in one’s life, and that the tough question was whether your jam sandwich should be cut into squares or triangles. Life has moved on. Things are complicated now. There are competing demands, deadlines, dates, and deaths to deal with. How we long to return, to hug that younger version of ourselves and tell them to hold onto this moment because it is precious and it will be gone soon; too soon.

A happy 6 year old who never knew he would be a writer

We may retreat into the imagined innocence of our past selves, but we should remember that this innocence extends to us right now. Perhaps in a year, we will look back on a photo of ourselves today and reminisce about how little we knew while thinking we knew it all, and how silly we were thinking that after reading an essay on ‘the melancholy of photos of our younger selves’ and saying things would change that we would live any differently.

Right now, we are a past version that a future self will one day hope to return to. Chances are, in a couple years when we look back at a photo of ourselves today, we will be seeing someone similarly naïve about what’s to come. There is truly a humbling element in it all: we think we know it all while we daily prove to ourselves the opposite. We wade through fogs of ignorance, our sight cloudy with the glaucoma of misplaced hubris.

My legendary grandfather Paul

Here is a photo of my grandfather. He looks so young (and so do I). I remember being chased around the house by him with his false teeth in hand pretending to eat me, and I remember hours spent at the park while he patiently stood behind me pushing me on the swings. I used to see him every day but then…not. I stopped seeing him. He seemed embarrassing, out of touch, and now, out of time. The photograph is bittersweet, reminding me of a precious time which will never, can never, be repeated.

Some fantastic friends

Photos draw into sharp relief the chasm separating appearances and reality. We were smiling, but at the time we felt pretty miserable. We felt lonely (despite being surrounded by friends), we had misgivings about our job and were sceptical about prospects for future success. But despite this, we appeared to be paragons of bonhomie. We are masters of deception. Imagine what we would see if it was possible to photograph one’s emotions, and not just one’s smile; Instagram would surely be a very different place.

Then there’s a photo of our first partner. They were so kind, their smile remains a celebration of youth and beauty. We used to talk every day, but we haven’t heard from them in years. We only dated for a year before we ended things. It was messy, and thinking about it still hurts. We were too embarrassed to be vulnerable, too stubborn to be kind, too young to know better. They’re probably happily married now. Maybe they hate us, maybe they’ve forgotten we even exist. But maybe, on particularly lonely nights, they open their little box of memories to look at old photos of us and wonder how we are.

How little we made of those precious years. We should have been more honest about what we actually felt. We should have dared to be a genuine friend to the others. We should have told our grandfather we loved him more before it was too late. We should have spent that time figuring out what we could properly do with our careers. We should have taken a few more of the right sort of risks.

Photographs are unfinished portals transporting us to a world we can see but never embody, touch but never feel. The worlds they reveal are beautiful, but always unfinished. As much as we might want to return, we know we have to stay here to continue with the often difficult and yet rewarding task of living.

Photographs are torches illuminating the permanent night-time of our emotional landscapes. They will provoke anger, elation, despondency, and nostalgia; whether the feelings are welcomed or not, it cannot be denied that photos make us feel. They remind us that we are living, breathing, feeling humans that live not only in the present, but also in the memories we make on our journey here. 

Each photograph is a postcard of a special place once visited to which we can no longer return, making every voyage so much more special and every memory irreplaceable.

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