Tuesday, 31 March 2009

The past is another country....

....and one a lot of people choose to avoid, it seems. I've lost count recently of the number of times people say something like, "Oh that's all in the past. I don't need to dwell on that. Better to forget about it and move on." Sometimes they're referring to something personal, sometimes it's something general, even quite trivial. My partner will repeat it like a mantra, as if every day he can wake up like an amnesiac, blithely unaware of anything that has passed before. Tabula rasa, off we go!

Should we just forgive and forget, Dr Joshua Coleman asks in his excellent book, When Parents Hurt? Sure, if we can. "But there is so much pressure in our culture to 'get over it' and 'move on' and 'grow up' that many people aren't allowed to look back long enough to grieve what they didn't get from their parents without someone calling them immature. They end up blaming themselves for their inadequacies and conflicts without understanding how these problems came to be."

While I would never advocate that people live in the past, dwelling on misfortune, injustice or whatever, I find myself getting increasingly exasperated with the mentality that you can just march ever onwards without trying to look back 'to know what prints I leave', as Larkin wrote.

In my experience, those people who behave the worst in the present are often those who refuse to acknowledge the impact of their past. And the past can exert its influence in unforeseen ways. I know one woman, who cheerfully admits her childhood was appalling, but claims she has simply risen above it. Yet she showers her children with so many material things that they are positively drowning in stuff - in toys, games, money, food, praise, endless tokens of 'love'. And it's clearly not doing them a lot of good.

If you've not taken account of your loveless childhood, and truly come to terms with it, then you're in grave danger of either re-enacting it or, as in this mother's case, blindly over-compensating for it. Either way, you're still in thrall to your past - you just don't know it. As Hollis puts it in Finding Meaning: "Seldom are we wholly present to this moment, this ever-new reality, without the interference of the past. Whoever denies this invasive power of history is living unconsciously..."

Or, to repeat the wonderful Bergen Evans quote that underscores the film Magnolia, itself a magnificent, epic meditation on how our personal histories converge in the present: "'We may be through with the past, but the past ain't through with us."

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