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. We have seen that over the past two years with the campaign and presidency of Donald Trump and how the illusion of a mythical past has driven many ordinary people to support a man who despises them, all because he appeals to certain parts of a shared mythology about the past which sadly is often too racist to imagine. As the conservative writer and historian Max Boot noted today:
“The larger problem of racism in our society was made evident in Donald Trump’s election, despite — or because of — his willingness to dog-whistle toward white nationalists with his pervasive bashing of Mexicans, Muslims, and other minorities. Trump even tried to delegitimize the first African-American president by claiming he wasn’t born in this country, and now he goes after African-American football players who kneel during the playing of the anthem to protest police brutality. (Far from being concerned about police misconduct, which disproportionately targets people of color, Trump actively encourages it.)”
But politics aside, 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 not say to live in it.
That is something that I have been learning for close to 25 years now when my Clinical Pastoral Education Supervisor, using a Star Trek Next Generation metaphor from the episode A Matter of Time helped me to begin to recognize just how much the past impinged on my own life. In that episode a shadowy visitor claiming to be from the future refuses to help the Captain and crew of the Enterprise, claiming that if he were to help that his “history – would unfold in a way other than it already has.”
Finally Captain Picard is forced to make a decision and confronts the visitor, who turns out to be, not a historian from the future but a con-artist and thief from the past who was using time travel with a stolen space ship to collect technology to enrich himself. Picard refused the mans help and told him:
“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!”
My residency supervisor suggested to me that my future did not have to be my past, and in doing so 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. I admit that I am. That being said we should indeed learn from from our past but we cannot remain in the past 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.
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.”