Is the Past a Time or a Place?

Is the Past a Time or a Place?

Is the past a time or a place? Or, so asked my half-drunk friend last Saturday, as he fought against a rising tide of nostalgia mixed with apparent depression. All I could think to offer in return is one of those unsatisfying, middle-of-the-road answers: it’s a bit of both.

See, my friend—let’s call him Steve—is stuck in a very bad place: quarter life purgatory (“QLP,” for short). And, frankly, he’s paralyzed by questions like: is he in the right job?; is he living in the right city?; is he going to die alone and unhappy?; and, most importantly, how can he get back to when he was happy? Now, all of this might be a bit melodramatic perhaps, but still, for the person pondering these questions, it is undeniably tough stuff, right?

Luckily for Steve, he’s not at all alone.1 QLP is a roomy place, but space is filling up fast. More and more Millennials are suffering from the exact same symptoms as Steve, which are brought on by nearly the exact same causes as Steve’s are.

The classic QLP case goes a little like this, and I’ll just continue to use Steve even though this isn’t exactly how he ended up in QLP:

  • Cause No. 1: Steve has been through college and maybe studied abroad and had a generic but nonetheless subjectively amazing experience. It is riddled with nights out in foreign cities, sitting on the sides of riverbanks at one in the morning with friends and a bottle of wine, standing at the foot of a mountain in amazement, and it goes on and on and on.
  • Cause No. 2: Time caught up to him, and Steve had to grow up, but he found a stopgap measure: he went back to school to pursue some graduate degree, and all the while, he stayed in a sort-of Neverland world, which had boundaries marked by nights out, concerts in outdoor venues, and more trips to more new, exciting places.
  • Cause No. 3: Eventually, Steve had to graduate . . . again, because he could not rationalize getting another graduate degree and taking on the additional, attendant student debt.2 So, Steve had to get a job—any job—to support himself. The “any” job part turns out to be a problem, because “any” job does not translate into a fulfilling job.3
  • Cause No. 4: Steve looks around one day and realizes that he’s living in a strange city, is 26, and it’s not nearly as easy to meet people as it used to be around the time of Cause Nos. 1 and 2. Moreover, Steve realizes that others around him seem to be moving on; his friends are getting married or worse having children—neither of which is conducive to going out on Wednesdays or traveling to Switzerland on a whim. To make things even worse, Steve hates himself for his Cause No. 3 decision, because now he’s stuck in a job he doesn’t like surrounded by people who hate their jobs as much as he does.

There you have it,4 and remember these because I’ll be referring back to them repeatedly. That’s how Millennials find themselves in QLP—more or less.

It was necessary to explain QLP and how one gets there, because I think the answer to Steve’s question about the past as a time or place is a relative one. A historian will have no trouble telling you that the past is a point in time. Some scientists might say that it’s neither. And, my parents might say, “Stop thinking about stupid questions.” But, Steve asked me, not a historian, scientist, or my parents.

Back to the question: is the past a time or a place?

Once Millennials find themselves where Steve found himself last Saturday night—half-drunk, uncomfortable, insecure, lonely, and nostalgic, the gut reaction—as if they are drowning and fighting to reach the surface—is to run back to that place where they weren’t half-drunk (okay, maybe they were but in a less depressing sort of way and not by themselves), uncomfortable, insecure, lonely, and, obviously, horribly nostalgic.

And, this is precisely why Steve’s question becomes so important. If we accept that the past is a place, then Steve can escape QLP and head back to when he was happier—Cause Nos. 3 and 4 are merely inconvenient detours, not deal breakers.

If, however, we accept that the past is a time that has long since passed, then Steve is shit out of luck because Cause Nos. 3 and 4 come after Cause Nos. 1 and 2, which means you can’t avoid the ugly former in lieu of the happier latter. (That’s how numbers and sequences work I’m told.)

Now, Steve lived in China after graduating from college. He, like many Millennials, went there to teach English to Chinese students and maybe forestall the inevitable: it was his attempt to avoid the passage of time and, thereby, avoid becoming a “real” adult. And, it was also his Cause No. 2 of his QLP.

Steve liked China, because he was in a foreign country and things were new and he had about thirty other Millennials surrounding him all of the time. They would travel to Vietnam and Laos, and they didn’t make much money but travel, food, and booze were cheap so it didn’t bother them because they were making memories. As he described it at one point, he and his fellow teachers were “an eclectic group of foreigners to China bound together by our native language, mediocre teaching, and proclivities for alcohol.”

Steve used to send me stories about China. One was titled, “How Patrick Swayze got me thrown out of a Chinese night club.” It told about this night they went out to a club and, among other things, “were screaming out the latest unintelligible LMFAO lyrics.” But, more to the point, got kicked out after a friend tried to catch a girl as Swayze does in Dirty Dancing, but ended up instead toppling into a bottle-service table. As he put it at the time, one girl tried to be the “Jennifer Grey to my friend’s Patrick Swayze.” It didn’t work.

None of this really matters. At least not the substance at a micro level, but it’s illustrative at a macro one. If you read the entire story he sent me, none of it is really about China. It could have been about any club anywhere in the world where a drunk, reincarnate Patrick Swayze was performing. I went through some of his other stories before writing this (one about a horse mask) and again the common thread was the people around him and not the place itself.

This leads me to my first conclusion: the past is a time. Steve could go back to Shanghai today and would probably be disappointed by what he found. The city would be mostly as he remembered it. The club would still be there, but Patrick Swayze wouldn’t be there. Jennifer Grey wouldn’t be there either. And, while he could probably find a horse mask, it wouldn’t be the same one imprinted with the memory of how he and his friends wore them around all night that one time.

In short, even though the place would be similar, the people who mattered would be gone. Even though he would be in the right geographic place, he would be there at the wrong point in time, which is really where he wants to get back to.

But, at the outset, I said that the past was both a time and a place—my second conclusion. At first blush, this conclusion seems to be inherently at odds with my first conclusion. It isn’t though. Not really.

An example: I lived in Madrid for about six months five years ago. It was one of the most exciting times of my life that I really don’t think about that much anymore. All of the friends I met there have moved on, both literally and figuratively. Some live in New York, some in Chicago, and I’m in Washington, D.C.5 But, as some people had Paris, we had Madrid and always will to some extent.

About two years ago, for example, I had the chance to go back to Madrid with a new friend. That city just does something to me. I felt at home as soon as I had landed.6 For me, there’s just something about the place itself. Think of it like hearing a song that reminds you of that point in time when you were with your friends, driving down a dark road, listening to that one song, and everyone is just simply happy. That’s how Madrid is for me—the place itself is that song.

Of course, I wasn’t with all of my old friends. I was travelling with a new friend. But I could still feel the city liked I used to be able to. And, it was electric. At the same time, things were different of course, like Shanghai would be for Steve today. I took my friend to one of my favorite restaurants from my time there: it was closed. We happened to cross paths with an old friend, and we went out: even that wasn’t the same.

None of that matters either though. For me, it didn’t matter that none of the experiences was exactly the same as they were at that one point in time. I was just at peace being in the city I loved, and one that, however ridiculous this might sound, loved me back—or at least it felt like it did. For me, then, that’s my past, but it’s also a place I can still visit today.

Frustratingly, as with so many things there is no right answer to Steve’s question. To some extent, we can never overcome Cause Nos. 3 and 4 of QLP to get back to Cause Nos. 1 and 2. The past is called the past for a reason: it’s a place in time filled with people who get taken to different places by the ebb and flow of life. For that reason, as any historian will tell you, the past can never be recreated in any foolproof way.

At the same time, the past is animated by the places we were and the streets we remember—sometimes in subtle ways, and sometimes in more obvious ways. As a result, Cause Nos. 3 and 4 are emphatically not deal breakers, because we can go back to the places of Cause Nos. 1 and 2 that we miss so much today.

What about Steve though? None of this is likely to assuage any of his current fears, nor will it cure the hangover he had last Sunday. Three things are worth saying briefly in response to his question and the lingering “Now what?” or “So what?” that are really the questions propelling all of this.

First, we should all be happy that we went through what I’ve labeled here as Cause Nos. 1 and 2. Of course, they’re bitter in hindsight, but only because they were so sweet at the time. (Who doesn’t like waking up at the foot of the North Face?)

Second, although the moments might be lost to the past, there’s still something about the places we’ve been to that give us a reason to go back—whether temporarily or even permanently. (Hello, Madrid.)

Third, there really is nothing stopping us from changing our current situations besides our own paralysis. It might take work, and it might take time, but there’s nothing that says we can’t make new “best moments,” i.e., Cause Nos. 1 and 2, of our lives.7

Image above courtesy of Jo Dasson. Some rights reserved.


  1. Misery does love company; I know from experience. 

  2. Master’s degrees only do so much for you. 

  3. But jobs should be fulfilling. 

  4. Now, some people might just call that life, and maybe that’s right, but stay with me just a bit longer, and we’ll see whether it is right or not. 

  5. We still meet up from time to time in our respective cities. 

  6. Que Bueno! Surprisingly, my Spanish, which had been collecting dust for the last few years prior, came back to me as well. 

  7. Which we’ll later feel nostalgic about—but such are the fractals inherent in any QLP.