Study the Past, Don’t Live in It


Friends at Padre Steve’s World

I tend to become somewhat reflective as the New Year approaches. I am reminded of Peter Benchley, who wrote, “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.” Likewise, 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?”

Augustine’s question is interesting, but I think that his 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 was quite wise, he said to study the past, did he did not say to live in it.

That is something that I have been learning for over 20 years now when my Clinical Pastoral Education Supervisor, used a Star Trek Next Generation metaphor from the episode A Matter Of Time in order to teach me how my past was influencing the way I was living my life.In the episode a shadowy visitor who claimed to be from the future refuses to help the crew of the Enterprise save an endangered world, claiming that if he were to help them, that his “history – would unfold in a way other than it already has.”

Finally, after other all other possibilities were exhausted, Captain Picard was forced to make a decision and confronted the visitor, who as it turned out to be a thief from the past, using time travel to collect technology to enrich himself by bringing it back in time. Picard makes a comment which I think is pertinent in a time like ours.

“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!”

When my supervisor told me that my past did not have to be my future, it 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, at least by profession, 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.

Unfortunently there are many people who claim the same Christian faith that I claim who attempt to return to an imaginary past and to try to legislate that past onto others who do not share their beliefs, if necessarily using the police powers of the state to do so. Such is neither honest because it attempts to enforce a mythologized past on others, nor Christian, because ultimately the Christian hope is focused on the yet to be realized future and not the past, it has nothing to do with establishing some kind of theocratic Christian state that denies rights and a future to all but like minded Christians.

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.”

The coming year promises to be challenging, and the tensions between those who want to return to the past, especially the predominantly Christian cult  devoted to President Trump and making America great again and those who believe in an inclusive hope and future for all will be on full display.

As for me, I choose the path of Picard; because my future, and our future, hasn’t been written yet, and cannot be surrendered to those who want to return us to a mythologized past that never existed in history, but which they want to legislate today.

My choice in our time is to resist, and to fight for a future that includes everyone.

Until tomorrow,


Padre Steve+


Filed under Loose thoughts and musings

7 responses to “Study the Past, Don’t Live in It

  1. David W. Harris

    It appears to me that as human beings are a physical entity we view the world in a physical way and more often than not we confuse physical existence with spiritual existence. The Christian God is a spiritual entity whom we struggle to understand and very largely fail to understand. I think God has little care of our physical well-being as his concern is our spiritual welfare. Christianity appears to be confusing and fractured into denominations which work towards a similar end in disparate and competing ways. It is my view that those denominations which practice/value an intellectual approach are more likely to engender a spiritual understanding of God than those which value ritual and priestly intercession. By this last remark you may realise that I am a nonconformist that is probably because my background led me that way, yet what I am discussing is not from clerical teaching but my thoughts about Christianity and Christian teaching. I have often drifted off in thought about something a minister has said and come to just in time to wish I had concentrated on his sermon which might have led me further in understanding. In the past spiritual differences have led to physical confrontations this history condemns humanity to an impossibly long journey to spiritual understanding, although Jesus instructed us to spread his word he knew that the number of true beneficiaries would be a minority. What concerns me for the future is that the Book of Revelations appears to be unfolding into present and near future reality. Therefore I worry about the state of my soul and that of my children and other loved ones. Regards

    • padresteve

      Have you ever read B. H. Liddell-Hart’s book “Why Don’t We Learn From History”? He has an interesting section on God, Faith, Christianity, and Confucius. Sounds a bit like you.

  2. David W.Harris

    Thank you for the book suggestion, I am aware of the title but assumed it to be a military doctrine book, I shall try to find a copy. I would be very pleased to know where you found the photographs of the salvage work at Pearl Harbour or if you can name a book on that subject. Thanks you for taking the time to read and reply, I do not know how you find the time to do so much. Regards, DWH

    • padresteve

      Most of them I googled. I was also able to download the book of the Admiral who headed the salvage efforts. It is fascinating reading because it goes into great detail.

    • padresteve

      You can get Liddell-Hart’s book on Amazon Kindle pretty cheap.

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