Trapped in an Ever-present Past

Monuments. Memorials. Mourning. We utilize these to help process past challenges, the great loses and sacrifices that we – or sometimes our predecessors – dealt with. It is through mourning that we heal the pain, and we transform a negative experience into something that builds character and wisdom.

Yet there is a thing as too much mourning, too. There is such a thing as living too much in the past, of wallowing in ancient self-fulfilling prophesies of misery and victimhood.

The self-fulfilling prophesy works like this: The person cries out in exaggerated self-pity, and this creates the conditions where they develop and maintain “a good reason to cry.”

When we wake up and realize that our old currency has expired, we see that our prior models no longer get us where we need to go. When we wake up, we gain the potential to overcome the very problems that we thought as intractable and integral to our identity.

Those who are condemned to repeat the past are often those who cannot stop remembering it

George Santayana wrote that we ought to remember the past so that we don’t become condemned to repeat it, like “savages” trapped in a perpetual infancy, “..the condition of children and barbarians, in whom instinct has learned nothing from experience.”  

People like to quote those words by Santayana (or rather, paraphrase it, without all the stuff about “savages” and “barbarians”) as a way of expressing the importance of studying, celebrating and honoring history in a deep way.  One could argue that in order to gain a deep appreciation for the past — to truly remember the past —  one needs to relive it, just a little bit.

Yet when we say that a person is “dwelling in the past” we usually don’t mean that the person is temporarily engaged in a re-enactment of history.  Rather, we mean to say that the individual is stuck in a psychodrama that has taken over a good part of their lives. To use a Star Trek (TNG) metaphor: They’re stuck on the holodeck.

No, Santayana wasn’t including multi-generational blood rivalries or depressive self-obsession in his oft-paraphrased line. He was simply saying that continuity is essential to progress. In other words, he was describing remembering as a way of moving on… and to that effect, Santayana also cautioned against “..old age … as forgetful as youth, and more incorrigible; it displays the same inattentiveness to conditions; its memory becomes self-repeating and degenerates into an instinctive reaction, like a bird’s chirp.”  

The problem isn’t just that people don’t like listening to cranky old men… the problem is also that cranky old men keep the battles raging for too long, turning everyone else into cranky old men, just like them.

Yes, we used to have to walk uphill in the snow, both ways.

But it doesn’t need to be that way anymore.


About danspira

My blog is at: My face in real life appears at a higher resolution, although I do feel pixelated sometimes.

Posted on July 29, 2012, in Architecture, Learning, Life, Positivity, Psychology and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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