See this picture? This was a great day. A day when I was at my best. A day when I was surrounded by friends, doing something important, using all my skills.
And as much as I might like to, I can never go back.
The day was January 20, 1989. The group picture above, from left to right – Kathleen, Bobby, Ashley, Rick, Mark, me – were the White House staff assigned to execute President and Mrs. Reagan’s departure from Andrews Air Force base, back to California and private life. Just over my shoulder in this shot, you can see the Presidential aircraft. The little white pin each of us are wearing? The White House Staff pin, issued by the Secret Service, which meant we had all-access, everywhere.
It was a great day. And a day of much change. That morning, I woke as a member of the White House staff. I was 28 years old, had no gray hair, and no children. What I did have were badges, and pins, and credentials that could get me anywhere I wanted to go. That day, I put my White House-issued radio on my hip, inserted my earpiece in my left ear and went to do my job.
And did it well.
And at precisely 12:01pm that Friday, a new President was sworn in and I was out of a job.
None of my badges, pins or credentials mattered. At 12:01pm I had no office to go to. No work to do. No special status.
I was just me. Really good at my job, and unemployed.
Sometimes things change in a flash, don’t they?
In the subsequent years, I’d look at this picture and long to go back to this day, to these people. Especially these people. Because our team was so good at our work, and we never had the chance to do it again. Not in that configuration. Not for that President. Not at the White House. Not at Andrews.
And I want to go back for another reason, too. Ashley lost her husband suddenly in 1998, and then we lost Kathleen in 1999 to ovarian cancer. Rick’s wife Pam died in 2007. Bobby’s in New York, I mostly see Mark on TV, Rick travels the world, Ashley is out in California. This moment frozen in time – when we were young, we were healthy, we were so good at what we did – represents a time that was unimaginably precious. I only realized how precious much later.
Loving that time, and loving who I was then is an awareness which points me toward greater understanding of who I am at my best. That’s the greatest gift of the past.
But now I know, as wonderful as it was:
I cannot go back because it the past only exists in memories.
You can’t go back. This picture captures just one moment in time, and maybe the past is simply a series of moments in time. Which by the time you note them, have already elapsed.
With so much turmoil and tumult in the world today, many of us are casting our minds back and saying things like, “I wish I still had that job.” Or, “I never should have left that job.” Or cataloging a lifetime of “mistakes”. I must hear it every week. That job you loved and left? Let me ask you this: Who’s still there? Has the mission changed? Have you changed? Is it really the same? Could it possibly be the same? Is anything the same about the time and place… and you?
No, because the precise alignment of people and place and time and mission and purpose is fleeting.
It’s like some wonderful experiment where a drop of Bobby plus an ounce of Kathleen and a measure of Ashley and a dollop of Rick and a helping of Mark and me yielded magic. Pure magic. True excellence.
Which is the real thing I loved about that time and place and people.
When I seek that – that one true thing – in what I’m doing now, then the magic can truly be replicated. Anew. Right now. Today.
Perhaps you can learn from your longing for the past. What’s it tell you about what you miss? Who were you at your best, at that time of your life? And what does that tell you that you need more of right now?