Again and again wise people have advised us to be mindful of history, warned of the perils of being ignorant of history. Churchill for one saw an awareness of history as contributing particularly to one’s ability to be a visionary, to see into the future, stating that “the farther backward you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see.” Our culture encourages us to focus relentlessly on what is ahead as though the future, what is coming our way, is the only part of experience that matters. But too many thoughtful men and women have concluded quite the opposite and taught that understanding the past is key to being able to live well in the future. Spiritual traditions counsel us to draw on the past for meaning, to see in all that has gone before sources of strength that can be accessed in the present.
I grew up in a household where my parents carried some sort of shame about their own impoverished beginnings and so were reluctant ever to tell us stories about their past. That shame and the resolve to never revisit the past meant I learned that I should resolutely keep my face turned always forward, be always focused on the future and what might be ahead, what I wanted to be and do someday. While such an upbringing did equip me well for setting goals and planning for my future, it meant that I repeatedly fell into the traps forecast for those who live unaware of history and are not mindful of the past: I repeated past failures, was unable to learn from mistakes because I tried to forget them as quickly as possible, and—most painful of all—I inflicted that harm of my own past onto those I loved in the present.
Eventually the desire to be free of past burdens motivated me to do the work of therapy in which unpacking the past, hauling old memories and old wounds and old patterns out for reflection and healing, helped me stop re-enacting my history. No longer cut off from my past, I could then use it as Churchill envisioned, to provide a support and strategy for living into a more rewarding future. I would have preferred to forget large chapters of my past; yet once I realized that my willed forgetfulness was resulting not in being free of the past but actually being more trapped by it than ever and repeating its destructive patterns, forgetting the past was no longer an option for me.
The side mirrors of our cars warn us that objects in the mirror are closer than they actually appear. A similar phenomenon is present in our relationship with the past and what is behind us: all that we have lived through, whether we remember or not, stays with us, gathers around us in every moment. To live whole and happy requires us to embrace that past, in all its darkness and light, and let it be part of our living now.