A good part of our lives is spent trying to make sense of the past, to forget the past, or to relive the past.
Sometimes, this is done willingly. We look up to the past and we long for what used to be. Nostalgia creeps in. Sanitized of all impurities by the passage of time, the past appears brighter and less complicated than what is there now.
Some other times, we are stuck in the past unwillingly. Trauma is a good example of how we can be drawn compulsively to past events. How we can relive them as if they were taking place right now. It’s painful but we cannot help it. We are caught in a reactive mechanism that attempts to recreate and relive the traumatic situation, hoping to find closure.
Collectively, we may buy into ideologies that promise a return to a golden past, one in which things were simple and normal (as opposed to the confusion and “abnormality” of the present). Once the ideology takes hold, some of us are capable of pretty much anything in order to defend their nostalgia-based delusion.
The obvious problem with this longing for the past is that it offers a promise it cannot possibly keep. The past is dead and there’s no way of bringing it back. We never step in the same river twice.
Of course, there’s value in examining the past. Whether we’re talking about our individual or collective history, paying attention to what happened can provide clarity and insight. We can draw lessons from it. But that’s it. We cannot recreate the past or live in it. We can only live within our fantasies about the past. One way or another, we will do so at the expense of the present.
But I think there is a bigger problem here. Longing for the past or attempting to recreate it is disempowering. It’s a way of telling ourselves that the solution to our problems is not something to be created by honestly facing whatever is there in the present, but something to be found and reenacted.
The implication is that we do not think of ourselves as active creators of these solutions. If the best is already behind us, if our point of reference for how things should be is somewhere in the past, then our role is fundamentally regressive – we just need to find a way back.
This disempowerment makes us less responsive to whatever is there in the present moment, and more prone to fall into the lethargy of ready-made scripts. It doesn’t matter how good those scripts are. They were written in another context and responded to different problems. Adopting them may provide comfort, consolation, and even a sense of purpose. But this doesn’t make them right. They cannot offer a working solution in the present. Today may seem like yesterday but it’s not. The only thing clinging to the past is the mind.
We are bound to live with the past. We’re not bound to live in the past. Even when the regression happens largely beyond our control, as in trauma, there are choices and ways out.
I am not writing as somebody who considers himself above all this. I know only too well the power of nostalgia and the compulsiveness of searching in the past what is missing in the present. I’ve been there so many times.
There are moments when it is important to remember, understand and reframe things from the past. To see them in a new light. To make peace with them. Just don’t forget to come back here, where it all happens.