There have been a lot of reasons to think about the past in the last few weeks and months. We have lost music legends, astronauts, family members, friends, and some might argue that we as a nation have just lost our innocence and are in for the ride of our lives beginning in January 2017. At any rate, I think that all of us have had to deal with some kind of loss recently, and that tends to make us look back. Sometimes fondly, sometimes sorrowfully, sometimes with malice in our hearts and venom on our tongues.
But look back we do. We can’t help it. We are drawn to history, the fascination of it, the mystery of it, the supposed good old days that we are always wishing for but can never seem to find.
I love history. I love reading biographies of great men and women and trying to figure out how they did it, how they kept it all together, how they made their marks on this world. I love reading about grand armies and governments and founding fathers and technology breakthroughs and all of it. I love to look back.
Funny thing is, the older I get, the more I see that my looking back is taking away time from my looking forward to what is left to me. Time. Experiences. People. Loves. Challenges.
There has to be a balance. How do we find out just what that balance is? How do we differentiate between studying, learning from and enjoying the stories of the past from looking to, living for, and planning for the future?
I am starting to build a framework for this level of analysis for myself, and I thought I would share it with you. It’s a work in progress, and it may not fit your own personal framework for looking at the world at all. That’s okay. If it spurs contemplation, then I’ve done my job for this evening and you may take it from there.
I am looking at the progression from birth to death, and the associated looking back versus looking ahead, as a series of dichotomies.
Sadness versus Joy
We have all lost friends and family members, and we have endured changing relationships, shifting alliances, and the loss of stepping-stones, milestones and cultural icons. When these losses occur, we are sad. Why? Because we have lost the familiar, the bedrock of our lives that has always anchored us. We have lost our foundation, and that feeling that we are standing on shifting sand and trying to maintain our balance is not a good one. For me personally, and for many of you I wager, we also start to feel that we are moving ever more rapidly along that continuum of generations, that we are becoming the older generation much faster than we expected to. We get the feeling that, by default, barring miracles, we are next. We have lost our youth, no matter how valiantly we try to hold onto it.
Is there joy in this state? Yes! Knowledge and wisdom (they are not the same) increase as we age. Generativity becomes almost second nature. We begin to realize that the memory of these people, places and experiences will never be taken away from us (notwithstanding the development of dementias and the like), no matter how many losses stack one atop the other over the years. We begin to realize that we are all a very small part of a very large rushing river of time, and how awesome it is to have even existed and been here at all. We begin to develop a sense of unity with something much larger, and much more intricate, than ourselves.
Grief versus Hope
We have all experienced grief. We know what it feels like to lose a pet, a teenaged beau, a friend, a parent, a spouse, a sibling. We begin, as we age, not to just deal with the loss of others, but to deal with the loss of ourselves. Our physical stamina lessens, our sexuality, dexterity, eyesight, hearing, all begin to change and often not for the better. We lose friends, jobs, responsibilities. We are acutely aware that with the passing of each dear friend or loved one, that we could possibly be next. We come to understand in a very real way that we will all die. None of us escapes.
Hope in all this? Of course! Hope that we learn by losing that we need to fully and deeply experience our ongoing relationships, job duties, and activities each day to the maximum degree possible, given time and circumstance and motivation. There is hope in that with each passing there is new life, new birth and a renewal that we may make a part of ourselves. We are making impressions on others all the time, and we have more influence over how the world around us is experienced by others that we often give ourselves credit for. In a very real sense, the way we live on in the future is directly proportional to how much we give in the present, how invested we are in our own lives.
Acceptance versus Anticipation
Do we simply accept that we get slower, more overweight, mentally dulled, boring or incapable of learning just because we are closer to the death part of the graph than the birth part? Of course not. Do we accept that deaths and losses define us, put us in a perpetual state of sadness from which we can never recover? Do we get lulled into thinking that the last half of life is not supposed to be as fun, stimulating or challenging as the first? Do we look back at the past and mutter to ourselves that this is the best it is ever going to be?
If so we can learn to better anticipate what is coming. We can train ourselves to seek out new ways of doing the same old things, to learn new skills and to look for trends that will likely affect us as we age. We cannot predict the future, but we will have a pretty good idea based on those lessons learned from the past what is likely to trend as time goes on, and rise to meet it instead of having it crash over us like a wave.
Retention versus Sharing
There is a tendency, is there not, to circle the wagons, load the guns and pray when things look bleak around us. When we see that things are getting tight, that there is not enough, then we gather our stuff to ourselves (be it money, time, expertise, ideas, or energy) and retain as much of it as we can for as long as we can. We feel satisfied that if we can just hang on to everything that we will be okay. We look to the past, to the things that we have always had and the way things have always been. We close our eyes tightly and hope that when we open them that nothing will have changed at all. This is folly.
Paradoxically, as we age and mature, we find that this is the wrong approach all together. Gathering everyone and everything we love to ourselves and holding on as tight as we can guarantees control in the short-term, but in the long-term it is suffocating and stifling and leads to an artificial sense of safety. Sharing our time, talents, expertise, money and our own physical presence is so much more satisfying. Giving to others, hearing of the experiences of others away from us is more enlightening and instructive to us than holding onto old patterns and ways.
Control versus Freedom
Control. I often feel that I have it, don’t you? If things make it onto my calendar or my to do list, then they exist, they are real, and I can manipulate them. They will happen as I want them to happen, when I want them to happen. Today, next week, next month, next year. If I choose a path to take or a project to finish, it will be so. I run my life. So it is that I get up every day, or I used to, and tell myself that. It only took one course in college that I almost flunked (after making all A’s my entire life up to that point), one out-of-control clinic day that shot my perfect schedule all to hell and back, one sudden death of someone I thought would always be around, to show me, brutally convince me, that I have very little actual control over my life. I control the store front, the façade, the window dressing. My actual life, the things that happen around me and to me and inside me, are wild and untamable and uncontrollable by me or anyone else.
How wonderful then, how absolutely marvelous, to experience the freedom that comes with letting go the need to control our own lives. I’m talking about the big picture here. I know that I do still have some control over my choice of life partner, what kind of work I will do and when I will do it. But control over life in the grand sense, in the overall scheme of things? None of us have that. We cannot repeat or redo past events, no matter how we’d like to. We cannot fully atone for past mistakes. (Now, before you get started, please understand that these are philosophical ramblings, not religiously based ideas that need fleshing out. That is the job of my friends who are ministers or who are in seminary) We certainly cannot control events that have already happened. If we cannot even control these events from the past that we already know about, how can we delude ourselves into thinking that we have any modicum of control over future happenings that we have no inkling of yet?
I can plan ahead all I want, but I must stay flexible.
I can chart my own course, but I must be willing to change directions.
I can maintain a sense of personal values, religious beliefs, political positions and the like, but I must be willing and able to pivot.
The moment you give up the need and the drive to control and the artificial sense of power and influence that comes with it, that, my friends, is the moment that you are truly free.
Loss versus Accumulation
I think back on my life, and through a certain kind of filter, what do I see? A long, seemingly never-ending string of losses. My own personal trail of tears. Childhood. Innocence. My father. Teachers. Mentors. Bosses. Classmates. Relationships. Loss upon loss, rapidly escalating as I age. Loss portends diminishing returns, decreasing value, shrinking assets, and the very real sense that we are rapidly fading away to a state of irrelevance and obsolescence. The past is slipping away-or is it?
Each loss, though acutely and immensely painful at the time, adds to our overall life experience. The richness of life is increased not just by our acquisitions, not just by our successes, but by our losses and our abject failures. Our reaction to loss, our adaptation to it, the way we decide to go on in spite of it, is what makes us stronger. We accumulate memories, experiences, emotions, and bonds that inform our daily lives, sometimes imperceptibly but always actively. Our present is informed by our past. How could it not be?
We should not carry our past losses and sadness as baggage too heavy to bear, but we should wear our past lessons as a bright garment woven with the golden thread of love and experience. Only then will we be able to feel hope in the face of transition.
Frustration versus Calm
If only I had…
If only she had…
I tried over and over to…
I told you so…
I get so frustrated when…
I should have…
I would have…
I could have…
I look back at all those times, and I know, I really know, that I did the best I could with the skills I had, the information I had at the time, the temperament that I possessed, and the logic and reasoning that I could bring to bear on each situation that frustrated me so.
I will not get do overs.
I can’t blame myself.
Today is already here and tomorrow is coming fast.
Hanging on to frustration will not make me any more ready to face tomorrow, my task at hand.
If I remain calm, I have a chance to get it right this time. I truly believe that, and you should too.
Idealization versus Deglamorization
Like many of us, I have a tendency to look back at the past and see it as an idyllic time, a perfect time, a joyous and stress-free time. “The good old days” were not always that, I’m afraid. Life was simpler, yes, we were not so materialistic, we were not plagued by the double-edged burdens of technology, and we always seemed to have enough. I do not remember arguments about gender, who was going to use which bathroom and who could or could not get married or serve in the military. Politics seemed simpler. (I know, I know, they were just as bad then as now…) There were the good people and the bad people, and as long as you stayed away from the latter you were safe. There were wars to be fought, to be sure, but they were against real, flesh and blood enemies with different uniforms and the conflicts were winnable. We expected to win, every time. It was a simple time, right?
Remembering and learning from the past is fine, but all was far from perfect in those idyllic times of our youth. All it takes is listening to a book like Churchill’s The History of the English-Speaking Peoples to realize that we have always treated each other very badly, we have always killed each other and plundered and raped and stolen and intrigued and schemed. We are human, and we have always been human. I don’t expect that part of the great flowing river of time and history to change that much over the next few thousand years.
Looking at the present for what it is and moving forward with the intention of improving it is admirable. Stripping away the glitz and the glitter of fond memories may not be the most comforting thing to do, but it is the way to lean into tomorrow with an attitude that will get you through the day.
Blaming versus Acceptance
One of the main things that we do in the twenty-first century to justify our anger, frustration, and angst is to blame others for our circumstances. We’re too fat, too thin, too rich, too poor, too black, too white, too liberal, too conservative. You name it, whatever it is, we can find someone to blame for it. Our sense of entitlement is so bloated these says that we think someone else is bound to be responsible for the state we find ourselves in, and we could have no direct responsibility for it ourselves, could we? Furthermore someone else must do the hard work of fixing the problem, whatever it might be. I have to say this, and I hope you know what I mean.
History is an enlightening teacher, but she does not grant absolution.
In order to balance our love for, allegiance to, and fascination with the past with our need to survive and thrive in the present world, we must accept our current state. We must make peace with our history, embrace our present, and faithfully welcome our future.
I really think that is the crux of it.
We must forgive ourselves and others.
We must own our own actions, including our mistakes.
We must take responsibility for our words, our plans and our interactions.
If we can do this in the present, taking cues and learning lessons from the past, only then can we positively and confidently face tomorrow. Getting lost in a dusty past or hiding from an unknown future will not work.
We have life to live.