We have an intrinsic desire to connect and reminisce, but fear of judgment or facing painful memories can push us away from attending reunions.
We organize reunions because we yearn to reconnect with old friends, recall shared experiences, and reignite a sense of community. We all need meaningful social contact and enjoy nostalgia. While coming together can feel alluring, actually attending the event may evoke a spectrum of ambivalent feelings. We’re likely to feel judged for our achievements, appearance, or socioeconomic status, especially compared to our peers. Transitioning into adulthood is often tumultuous, marked by intense negative experiences, and revisiting those periods can be daunting. Attending reunions can inadvertently reactivate traumatic memories, making the decision to participate a delicate one for many of us. Seeing a former bully or revisiting a dorm can bring back the anxiety, fear, loneliness, or sadness of those formative years. We might even find ourselves sweating or feeling trapped. Recognizing and validating our fears is crucial.
Reunions can evoke a poignant sense of melancholy as they confront us with the passage of time, our shared vulnerabilities, and the stark reality of mortality. We often imagine our classmates as they were, young and vibrant; seeing them much older and struggling with physical limits can be jarring. They mirror our fragilities and a growing sense that one day, we will lose capacity. Through these interactions, we’re forced to accept that time spares no one. If this overwhelms us, we might flee into nostalgic idealism, longing for a mythologized past when the future seemed vast and uncharted.
Discovering the death of a classmate is perhaps the most somber aspect of reunions. It confronts us with harsh realities that highlight the fragility of life and the transient nature of our existence. They compel us to reflect on our lives, the choices we’ve made, the relationships we’ve nurtured, and the legacies we hope to leave behind.
A spirit of melancholy may surface through grappling with lost opportunities and unrealized potentials. Seeing old friends can evoke thoughts of “what could have been”–missed connections, unexpressed feelings, or abandoned dreams. We find ourselves mourning for paths not taken and chances not seized. If we meet this with introspection, we may find the determination to forge deeper connections with our loved ones.
Social Comparison Theory can explain some of the complexities that play out at reunions. It suggests we have an inherent drive to evaluate ourselves in relation to others. Without objective measures, we determine our worth, abilities, and internal states by comparing ourselves to our fantasies about others. This leads to upward comparisons where we idealize others as superior, leaving us feeling inadequate yet motivated to improve. While downward comparisons frame others as inferior, providing us with a boost in self-esteem and even gratitude. We grab onto these attitudes to reduce uncertainty about ourselves and enhance self-esteem. We often compare ourselves to those who are superficially similar, making it seem more relevant, as well as those in close proximity because we can collect more evidence about them. Being trapped in continuous comparison increases dissatisfaction and jealousy, especially in environments where we feel constantly evaluated or overshadowed. Held with a constructive attitude, seeing peers in similar life situations can provide a sense of validation and belonging.
Attending a reunion can also reconnect us with our younger selves—that part untouched by trials and disappointments. Recalling this way of being can preserve our innocence and idealism. Our younger selves often approached the world with a raw, unfiltered sense of wonder and idealism untainted by cynicism. Before external influences, societal pressures, and personal setbacks began to shape our decisions, our younger selves often acted in ways that were true to our inherent nature. By remembering who we were at the core before life’s complexities clouded our judgment, we can reconnect with fundamental values and traits that define us. Remembering our vulnerabilities, hopes, and naiveties from our younger days can deepen our empathy and compassion for others. It fosters forgiveness based on kinship—we can accept that everyone is on a unique journey, continually evolving and learning. Evoking our younger selves is a path to healing. Recognizing the innocence and purity of our past can help contextualize and process traumas or disappointments. It offers a chance to extend love, understanding, and forgiveness to our past selves and those who might have inadvertently hurt us.
Approaching reunions with an open heart, genuine curiosity, and unburdened with high expectations can rescript a painful past. We can unhear painful comments from the past by recalling our original vital spirit before we became disenchanted by suffering.
Coming into re-union with our innocent self is the secret gift of reconnecting with the communities of our youth.
HERE’S THE DREAM WE ANALYZE:
“I am back at college for a reunion. On a tour of one of the new gardens, I manage to pluck three ripe tomatoes from the vine rather surreptitiously. They were red, juicy, and only just beginning to wrinkle. Rubbing them clean on my shirt, I was worried that I might get caught before I began popping them in my mouth, one by one. Then I was on my own. I decided to climb the steps into my old social club, and as I passed people going the other way, I felt judged, their eyes scrutinizing me on their descent. Inside were three main stations: a dance station, where people were doing the Macarena; an athletic station with adventurous water sports; and finally, a game station, where people in face paint were playing a tribal version of Twister. Each station terrified me in its own way (that I would have no dance moves, hurt myself, or not know the rules of the game, respectively), and I felt I belonged nowhere. I circled the room once, surveying my options and trying not to be noticed. I felt for the tomato in my pocket, rubbing it like a talisman. I decided to leave, but just as I was on my way out, the apparent leader of the tribal Twister game, war paint on his face and hair high in a ceremonial updo, made intense eye contact with me. His eyes seemed to say, “I see you. I see who you really are.” Then I woke up.”
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