Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Past

"The past is never dead. It's not even past." -- William Faulkner.

Generally, Faulkner is a bit too jaded for my tastes, but there is something that rings true for me in this quote. And, in mulling over my own past, I feel that this applies to both the good and the bad, although the bad seems much easier to recognize.

I have known people who have lived through the nightmare of child abuse, who have told me that no matter how much counseling or therapy they have had that it still informs their self-image. They think that they have dealt with it only to find it nipping at their heels when they least expect it. They hold a secret guilt that it was really all their own fault and, should any one find out about it, people would abandon them. There is no rationalizing it away. There is the possibility of reducing the intensity, but it will never go away completely. In cases of extreme abuse, the person will simply dissociate from the experience to avoid living the pain, which, in turn, keeps them from enjoying the present.

Similarly, many people who have experienced physical attacks continue to carry internal scars from the experience. It causes them to alter their behavior in an attempt to make certain that it cannot happen again. It is futile, of course, but the need to, at the very least, control what happens to one's person and avoid any additional attacks is a strong one. In a strange way, by taking on guilt or anger at one's self in these cases, one is taking back a small measure of power and rejecting the label "victim." But that is only a partial solution.

We have all heard stories of soldiers and others following the trauma of war or other violence who develop post traumatic stress syndrome. In an earlier age, we collectively did not seem to have much compassion for such people. If we gave their condition any name at all, it was something reflective of them somehow being a coward or weak. It didn't occur to people that some sights and deeds could maim an individual's mind and spirit just as severely as physical violence could maim their bodies. We seemed to have gotten past that for the most part, but one can still hear an echo of impatience for those who are unable to "buck up."

Naturally, there are good things in life that never leave us as well. Any happy life altering event will stay with us for quite a long time. I imagine that every parent can remember the moment when their baby was first put in their arms. We remember fondly when someone said exactly the right thing to make us feel better about ourselves, whether it was a parent, a teacher, or a friend. We also carry with us the small, repeated activities with someone we love, regardless if they are alive or dead, whether it be fishing trips, Sunday morning runs to get donuts, endless card games, or double scoop cones at Baskin Robbins. The fond memories remain, even if they no longer happen.

I wonder why it is so much more difficult to hold on to the good things. Perhaps it is because things that follow can color the past, and this is more pronounced in the good memories. Bad memories get neither worse nor better with the passage of time. They were bad when they happened and nothing will soften that badness into goodness. With the good things, however, their goodness can be diminished by time and circumstances. If we have looked back at a person fondly, only to find that they had deceived us, that fondness disappears in a puff of smoke. What we felt was a good thing as a child can, in the light of adulthood, look very, very different, leaving us to figure out what was true about the experience. And that infant one fell in love with at first sight is hard to see in the teenager who says they hate you.

Perhaps another reason is that the negatives are generally much stronger than the positives. Ice cream cone memories can't hold a candle to the strength of the pain and horror of being violated by another human being. While they will continue to make us smile when we think of them, the good things are easily drowned out by the bad. And, if there are too many bad things, the good ones can disappear completely, as if they were merely an unreal fantasy.

I think Faulkner was right that the past always tags along with us, for good or for ill. Our only response is to find some way to live with it honestly, without lying to ourselves or sugar coating it; to bring to the fore those experiences and memories that were strong and good. And to recognize that every single person is dealing with something and to treat them gently for that reason.

1 comment:

Knitman said...

Your second paragraph is me. Though today I KNOW it wasn't my fault. It doesn't stop biting me though for all that. No one recovers from a past like mine. We learn to live well despite it. One of my regrets abotu the openness with which child abuse is now dealt with is that people seem to think 'oh a couple of years of therapy and it's okay'. It is not okay and never will be. That doesn't mean I don't live well. It just means I live well despite the load.

ALL of us are our past. We are who we are because of it, good or ill. We create meaning from it. Often not helpful meaning.

I do have happy memories form the past and I am able to talk of them even though along witht he happy times there was evil too. I can tell you how exciting Singapore was, how I loved the jungle, the sights and sounds, smells and food of a very exciting place. I can also tell you how I was accosted , stripped and molested. I can tell you how my father nearly killed me. I can tell you that is when I knew he hated me. Yet when I tell you of Singapore, I will tell you of the happy things. They did stick with me and I don't tell them to avoid telling the bad.