Marking Time: The Significance of Anniversaries

Photo by NASA Goddard - http://flic.kr/p/8kf3MF

Certain dates and the events that took place on them have resonance and meaning for us; they shape our sense of who we are, individually and collectively. TV schedulers like to run documentaries on the anniversary of important events, reflecting on the experiences of those involved with the benefit of hindsight, and usually ending by asking how far we’ve come and what we’ve learned. Could this be a useful exercise for us as individuals too?

In the early hours of July 21st 1969, I was woken by my parents calling me through to the living room where our old black and white television was tuned to live coverage of the Apollo 11 moon landings. As Neil Armstrong stepped out onto the surface of the Sea of Tranquility, the tension, relief and awe on everyone’s faces was profound. I was only 6 years old, and a lot of years of emotional memories have been laid down over that very early experience, but I can still recall that feeling of witnessing something momentous. I’ve been fascinated by space travel and exploration ever since; the Moon landings have helped to shape who I am.

Spool forward a few more years, and on another July 21st, I was involved in a serious road traffic accident which resulted in my becoming disabled. It was the 30th anniversary of that accident earlier this year. And again, in a more profound and life-changing way than even the Apollo programme managed, it was an event that has helped shape who I am.

So why do we celebrate, commemorate or otherwise mark anniversaries? Human societies have always marked important stages in the life cycle — births, marriages or formal unions, deaths. And we’ve celebrated the natural cycles of the world around us too — the changing seasons, harvest time, the turn of the year when the days become longer again. I wonder if marking these regular events gives us a sense that life has a structure and a rhythm rather than being random, chaotic and unpredictable? Within the familiar structure given to us by anniversaries, perhaps we can tolerate a certain amount of chaos and unpredictability, knowing that we have a number of fixed points ahead in the life of the family or the community.

More than that, anniversaries give us a chance to look back over the intervening months or years and see how far we’ve come in that time; what we’ve achieved (or not), how we’ve grown (emotionally or otherwise). On the 20th anniversary of my accident, I invited all of my friends and family to a barbecue in my garden. There’s a photo of the party, with me posing in front of everyone and smiling at the camera, as if to say “Look, I’m still here!” And I imagine that in early human societies (and in some desperately poor parts of the world today), the very fact that some or all of the community had survived to see another year through would be a very good reason indeed for celebrating and thanksgiving.

I was working, seeing clients, on the 30th anniversary of my accident, but I took some time to reflect that day on the years that have passed and on how I’ve changed over that time. I would not be who I am today without having gone through that experience, and it continues to shape who I am even after 30 years — as do the Apollo Moon landings, and the space shuttle programme, and the deaths of loved ones, and all the many things I’ve done, places I’ve been and people I’ve met over the years.

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Anniversaries are also an opportunity to mark collectively as a society, family or community, the events that have affected us all. They are a way of sharing the memory of an event or an experience and reaffirming as a group that we are “still here”.

As the 10th anniversary of the September 11th attacks draws closer, perhaps we can all pause for a moment or two to reflect on how we as individuals, families, communities and nations have survived, changed and grown in the years since that dreadful event, and how the experience of it has helped to shape who we are.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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