Finding One’s Own Past Blameworthy

There are times when life is busy, lived forwards with a view to the future that drives out any consciousness of the past. Sometimes it is just the opposite and things slow down and we live in quiet days that give us space to reflect. In such moments, if there is no imagined, sought-after future ready to fascinate our attention, then the mind is free to cast backwards through our personal histories and we can relive the past. This is often thought a bad thing, perhaps unconsciously regarded as suitable only for the elderly and the severely ill – that is, for those who haven’t any future to look forward to. That way lies only nostalgia, that unseemly retreat into what may never have been and which, in any case, certainly never may be again. Why, after all, would someone with more road left ahead than behind concern herself with what has been left behind?

It is an inevitability, of course, that thoughts of the past will arise in the present. We should try our best not to torture ourselves with them, but they come naturally and, just as naturally, they go. And while it is true the retreat to nostalgia can drain life of something in the present, it can also provide much comfort if the present moment is one of misfortune. Really, this is not better or worse than living with one’s mind fixed to the future, it is only cultural biases that make it seem so. After all, both hope and despair are future-oriented emotions, reactions to merely imagined circumstances – the least that may be said of rumination upon the past is that it is, ostensibly, about what has actually happened.

This is to understate the value of contemplating our own journeys, however. For when we imagine the future we always do so on our terms: “I will be as I am, but better, richer, stronger, wittier, more beautiful, charming, and intelligent, of more subtle and refined tastes, my every project will come to fruition…” Or, alternatively, “every possible misfortune will be visited upon me: I shall lose my youthful beauty, my mind will decline, my body will go to fat, I will lose my home, business, and family…” Both versions project our assessments of ourselves and our lives as we find them into an imaginal realm that reality does not and cannot push back against. But when we look back upon the past, we also do so on our terms – and sometimes what we can see is ugly.

(I am, of course, thinking about myself here.)

We should be glad if we look back and see misbehaviour – e.g. that our dissembling was transparent, our sense of entitlement delusional, our manipulations odious. It’s not that we are or ought to be glad that we behaved poorly or that we hurt people and lost friends, rather, we are glad because we now know that such behaviour is bad and that we should not act in such a way. We should be glad because we see that, although we didn’t meet our current standards for behaviour, those standards are there now and better than they were.


About AtaraxJim
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