Lest my conscience should prevent my sleep, I should be forthcoming: the idea for this article has found its root in the thoughtful consideration of history by Barack Obama in his book Dreams from My Father.
In searching for meaning within black history–not only in America, but in Africa as well–Obama highlights a real gem of wisdom (one of many I should point out). Within a conversation Obama relays the thoughts of Dr. Rukia Odero: Through European colonialism the true history of many African Americans has become obscured. Ideas, traditions, and beliefs became idolized wholesale as the pure times before the white man.
The history of black people both on the continent of Africa, and in many other countries is often a pain filled one. Like the Jews, it seems that they suffered more than their share of atrocity and maltreatment. Though the situations are regretful, it is possible to learn from them. I believe these experiences can shed light upon human nature in every culture. The African American history as discussed by Odero highlights the human tendency in times of strife to cling to the ‘good ol’ days’, whether or not they were in fact good.
Which one of us is not prone to reminiscing about the ‘old days’?
I know that once I left the rich extremes of highschool, I nearly made a profession out of reminiscing. Conjuring up the memories of times spent with friends, relishing the excitement of making new friends, or trying new things.
Looking back to the past from the future is a dubious enterprise at the best of times. When reminiscing, we tend to only see the good things in our memories, the things we want to remember. Conspicuously left out of my own foggy highschool memories is the uncertainty I felt, the panic and nervousness of learning to be a man while not having the faintest idea of what that meant. I fail to recall the broken friendships, the pain, the misunderstandings, the anger I felt in those days, and the many mistakes I made. With that said, in relation to the challenges and suffering of the present these rose coloured dreams are often a delightful temptation.
If we return for a moment to my earlier example, it is easy to see why this is the case. With the forceful invasion of European culture, a war on African society was waged: real and brutal. In the face of the horror and suffering of slavery, inequality, and disdain from the white man, the blacks had little other option but to cling to what they knew. That is not a bad thing, but it can be if that which is clung to also contains error or hidden pain. Obama quotes Dr. Odero from the black perspective:
“Without the white man, we might make better use of our history. We might look at some of our former practices and decide they are worth preserving. Others, we might grow out of. Unfortunately, the white man has made us very defensive. We end up clinging to all sorts of things that have outlived their usefulness.”
It is not much different for our own reminiscing.
Ironically, many prefer reminiscing because of the effect it has on our present emotions and feelings. The peace we perceive as existing in the past is somehow bleakly transported to the future. Other times such reminiscing motivates us to make changes to the present, like when an addict realises how his life really has crumbled around him. In yet another context we could see reminiscing as an excuse to procrastinate about fixing the present.
Memory in and of itself serves a vital role of educating the person, reminding us of what to avoid and what to pursue. It is useful to remember what a bully looks like or which dogs nips on the heels of passers-by. It is not useful, however, to reside completely within the otherwise non-existent past.
In the movie Inception a incredible idea is fleshed out. Through technology the characters of the movie harness a kind of deliberate lucid dreaming. In doing so, some people become so consumed with the dream world that they prefer it over reality. Likewise, someone who spends too much time living in the past may wish to live there instead. This forgetting of the present is often born of a hatred of the circumstances we may find ourselves, whether it be abuse, hard times financially, or social tumult to name a few. The tragedy is that to prefer a faded and drifting memory over the occurring present, is the same as choosing a picture of a meal instead of eating the food. The trouble is, it is easy to write this idea in a blog, but it does not answer the problem of suffering.
I have trouble writing about the usefulness of being present to our lives, especially when their is pain, without delving into theology.
From a secularist point of view it may be argued that “what doesn’t kill us only makes us stronger”. Such sentiment is rarely appetizing when you are the one suffering. Suffering is painful and ugly. Enduring suffering for the sake of another, however, can be one the most beautiful human actions, precisely because suffering is uncomfortable and detestable. If I told my wife I’d eat this next bowl of ice cream for her, she’d understandably be rather unmoved by my gift. On the other hand, what if I offered her the last seat on a rescue vessel?
The consequence of avoiding pain is overarching numbness. While hiding from the emotions of pain, we also turn off joy, love, and so much more. You can see it in the eyes of someone who has experienced rejection too frequently, a kind of distance, hesitancy. Conversely, the opposite extreme is to become identified by our pain, to believe that it defines us. This only leads to hatred, anger, and confusion.
To be aware of why we experience emotional pain, where it comes from, how our past effects it within the present, is to understand pieces of wisdom that lead to maturity. Though the past is often used as a refuge from the legitimate injustices of the present, growth cannot be found there, only stagnancy. Like a tree in perpetual shade, the leaves slowly wither and die. However, to embrace the sunlight of the present, though it may be uncomfortable or draw to light things we’d rather not see, only within these sun rays can life find strength to outstretch its limbs.
Why the present is powerful is both obvious and obscured. The obvious fact being that no conscious action can occur in any other time; the obscured, it is within the present that our trials and experiences are brought to fruition. It is within the present that we come to understand ourselves, to find healing for wounds previously unseen. Most importantly of all, it is only within the present that love, the true source of human life, may either be expressed or received.