“The past always seems better when you look back on it than it did at the time. And the present never looks as good as it will in the future.” Peter Benchley “Jaws”
St Augustine of Hippo once asked “How can the past and future be, when the past no longer is, and the future is not yet?”
It is an interesting question but I think that the question is flawed. I think that the past lives in the present much more than we would like to think and that our future, though unwritten can unfold in a multitude of ways and possibilities.
Many of us live in the past as if it were today. We, individually and collectively, as individuals and nations live in the past and look to it much more fondly than when it was our present. I think that historian Will Durant possibly said it the best: “The past is not dead. Indeed, it is often not even past.”
As a historian myself I value the past and seek answers and wisdom from it to use in the present because what we do in the present does, for better or worse defines our future. Confucius said “study the past if you would define the future.” He did not say to live in the past.
That is something that I have been learning for close to 20 years now when my Clinical Pastoral Education Supervisor, using a Star Trek Next Generation metaphor from the episode A Matter of Time. In the episode a shadowy visitor claiming to be from the future refuses to help claiming that if he were to help that his “history – would unfold in a way other than it already has.”
Finally Picard is forced to make a decision and confronts the visitor, who turns out to be a thief from the past using time travel to collect technology to enrich himself. Picard responds:
“A person’s life, their future, hinges on each of a thousand choices. Living is making choices! Now, you ask me to believe that if I make a choice other than the one that appears in your history books, then your past will be irrevocably altered. Well… you know, Professor, perhaps I don’t give a damn about your past, because your past is my future, and as far as I’m concerned, it hasn’t been written yet!”
It was in telling me that my future did not have to be my past that opened a door of life and faith that I had never experienced before and which showed me that life was to be boldly lived in the present. While it meant a lot then, it means more now for the past according to William Shakespeare “is prologue.”
We cannot help being influenced by the past. We should indeed learn from it, but we cannot remain in it or try to return to it. Kierkegaard said that “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”
Since I am a Christian my faith in that future is in the God who is eternal, the God of love. Victor Hugo in Les Miserables said “Love is the only future God offers.” That is the future that I want to envision.
Living is making choices and the future hinges on thousands of them. Many of these choices we make automatically without thought simply because we have always done them that way, or because that is how it was done in the past. However, if we want to break the cycle, if we want to live in and envision that future of the God of love then we have to live in the present though the past lives in us.
T.S. Elliot penned this verse:
“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice.
And to make an end is to make a beginning.”