Think of a decision that changed your life, your most dizzying romance, a smell that steeps you in nostalgia. How old were you when those memories were born? If your answers fell between 10 and 30, congratulations! You are proof-positive for the existence of the reminiscence bump.
What is the reminiscence bump?
The reminiscence bump is a phenomenon which causes us to remember the events of our adolescent and young-adult life more vividly than later events. If you put it on a graph, the reminiscence bump would look like this:
Why do we have a reminiscence bump?
The most popular theory blames our reminiscence bump on culturally-conditioned life scripts. These scripts tell us what is supposed to happen in our lives and when. For example…
- At 10, you should identify your favorite subject in school and pick up the hobbies that you will master later in life.
- Between 16 and 18, you should collide with a star-crossed lover.
- In your early 20s, you should find true, lifelong friends at college.
- Your late 20s should be spent finding a way to merge your favorite school subject and hobbies into a career.
- Then you should get married and start having kids.
- After you get married and have kids, your life should go into “happily ever after” mode…leaving you with nothing much to do but balance your checkbook and reminisce.
Are life scripts bad for us?
For many people, life scripts are a quiet, benign force, much like gravity. But, of course, these cookie-cutter scripts don’t work for everyone. They might even be harmful because:
A) The existence of the script might discourage people from getting creative with their life choices
B) People who deviate from the script (by choice or by tragic accident) might be attacked by feelings of anxiety, inadequacy, and isolation
So what do books have to do with all this?
Most of the books that we read (and write!) are focused on 10-30 year old characters. These characters reinforce our life script and train our minds to focus on the days of our youth, thus feeding into the reminiscence bump. But there is an alternative. By reading and writing books about older characters, we open ourselves up to the possibility that we can fall in love, embark on an adventure, launch a new career, or change who we are at any age.
Here are 5 books to help you get over the bump:
1) Water for Elephants
Water for Elephants exposes the reminiscence bump at its worst: preying on the mind of a man whose action-packed youth has fallen into a slump that he detests.
All I can do is put in time waiting for the inevitable, observing as the ghosts of my past rattle around my vacuous present.They crash and bang and make themselves at home, mostly because there’s no competition.
Sadly, we don’t see Jacob accepting a hand out of his slump from any of those ghosts. He continues feeling disoriented and dissatisfied right up until the “inevitable” end.
2) The Hobbit
Now that you’ve been properly frightened by Jacob’s fate, let’s take a look at his opposite: Bilbo Baggins.
Bilbo has lived a respectable, adventure-free life up until the age of 50. Then, a troop of dwarves barges into his house and invites him to go on a quest with them. At first, Bilbo objects:
Sorry! I don’t want any adventures, thank you. Not today. Good morning! But please come to tea–any time you like!
But in the end, his “Tookish” side wins over, and he abandons his cozy hobbit hole (as well as his cultural life script) to go adventuring with the dwarves.
3) The Color Purple
Celie has a rough–but not atypical–beginning in life. She is shuffled from an abusive father to an abusive husband, doing her best to hold onto her own morals and values.
Then, in the middle of her life, when her fate is supposed to be settled, she meets Sugar. Sugar liberates Celie from her life’s script, helping her explore her sexuality, leave her husband, move to a new city, rethink her religion, and start a new career all as a middle-aged to old woman.
Ultimately, Celie rejects social conventions and embraces the idea that:
I am an expression of the divine, just like a peach is, just like a fish is. I have a right to be this way.
4) The Christmas Carol
When the Ghost of Christmas Past arrives to shepherd Ebeneezer Scrooge back to his “golden years,” Scrooge is not happy with what he sees: the opportunities for happiness that he missed while he was pursuing a life script to wealth.
Of course, it’s not uncommon for regrets to be intermingled with reminiscences, or to feel an ache of agreement when Marley moans:
I wear the chain I forged in life. I made it link by link and yard by yard. I girded it on my own free will, and of my own free will, I wear it.
What makes Scrooge remarkable is that he acts on his regrets. As a 60ish-year-old man, he changes his directive in life and re-invents himself in a way that makes him much happier.
5) Diving Miss Daisy
Seventy-two year old Daisy Werthan is not happy when her son informs her that she will have to rely on an African American chauffeur for the remainder of her travels.
Hoke, the chauffeur who Miss Daisy treats with disdain, is equally unenthusiastic about the new arrangement, although he does his best to hide it from his employers.
Still, the time they are forced to spend together reshapes both Miss Daisy and Hoke. Miss Daisy surrenders her prejudice. Hoke learns to read and write. And both of them gain the friendship of a lifetime.
What’s the most inspiring thing you have seen an older person do? I’d love to hear about it!