THE EVER-PRESENT PAST
By NANCY PATRICK
During the Renaissance, several British poets adopted the philosophy of carpe diem (seize the day). Evidently, life’s uncertainties made many feel an urgency to grab any available joy. The popular movie Dead Poets Society conveys the importance of living in the present, marching to the beat of one’s own drummer without regard to what others think or believe.
The concept of that kind of individuality and self-reliance echoes America’s own Transcendentalists, specifically Emerson and Thoreau. The idea of independence without responsibility to anyone else appeals to many people. This lifestyle may seem attractive until one considers the reality of relationships within which most of us live. The majority of people have parents, spouses, children, in-laws, and extended family members.
All these relationships create a network that extends from their origin throughout the rest of the lives involved. Some of the relationships such as blood kin are insoluble regardless of emotional detachment. Even when someone terminates an active relationship, the subtle psychological connections remain, perhaps passionate or even obsessive in nature.
Familial relationships begin forming when cognition begins. For example, parents and siblings play a major role in each other’s development. Young children sense the feelings of those within their home. These early perceptions create feelings of love, fear, stability or instability, tension, patience or impatience. These early psychological impressions create a child’s sense of well-being or lack of it.
When children grow up, they take this early foundation with them. The realities of their pasts do not disappear with age or change of circumstances. Even if shy, quiet, introverted people become more effective in their relational roles as they age, the change does not erase the truth of that past relationship, and it may affect its future.
Some people who have had a negative experience seem to think they can create a new and better life without their old baggage. They want to walk away from a bad marriage and take their children with them. They want to erase the past as a bad dream so they can create a new story defined by their own terms without regard for the other people in those pasts.
Unfortunately for them, the past relationships involved other people who may not want to cut the ties. The children of divorce continue to have two parents; one cannot claim ownership of the children and just find a new “mommy” or “daddy” for them. Those children have grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Just because a married couple wants to separate their lives does not mean they can erase all those other relationships.
I observed a young woman at the alumni wall of my university one day as she searched for her name to show her children. When she found it, she exclaimed, “There it is! There is my name.” Suddenly, her little girl said, “Mommy, why does it say your last name is Williams?” The mother stifled a gasp as she said, “Oh, my gosh. I forgot about that. I’ll tell you later.” I knew the woman’s history and knew Williams as her former husband’s name, not the father of her children. She had decided to forget her past; unfortunately, the past continues to pop up with surprise reminders just when we think we have escaped it.
Scott Fitzgerald’s classic The Great Gatsby illustrates the power of the past. Gatsby thought his acquisition of money and status had the power to erase his unpleasant past and let him resume his life at the point where he chose. He had passionately loved a socialite named Daisy Buchanan who had rejected him because of his inferior social position. When Nick Garraway, the narrator, explains to him the impossibility of recapturing chosen parts of the past and revising them, Gatsby replies, “Why, of course you can!”
Imagine Gatsby’s surprise when Daisy’s daughter Pammy enters the room where he and Daisy share a private moment. He looks at her as if she is an apparition. Seemingly, Gatsby thought his passion could erase Daisy’s years of marriage and the concrete proof of its existence in Pammy. Regardless of his passion and desire to edit the past, he faces the impossibility of doing so.
Many family tragedies result from past mistakes and secrets. How much pain could one avoid by practicing truth and transparency rather than trying to hide painful pasts? The Bible clearly mandates forgiveness. The story of the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4 illustrates that forgiveness is based on one’s honesty about the past.
When Jesus confronted her about her marital status, she did not deny her past or try to justify it. Certainly, in her culture she represented an immoral woman whom all Jews condemned. Even so, she recognized Jesus’ prophetic ability and accepted the living water (forgiveness) he offered.
Without the ownership of one’s own history and its consequent present existence, no one can move forward positively and constructively. Carpe diem, though appealing, does not mean one can forget or change the past. It does, however, imply that by seizing the day along with the past that has preceded it, one can live openly and honestly without fear of hidden pasts popping up unexpectedly.
Nancy Patrick is a retired teacher who lives in Abilene and enjoys writing.