The past beats inside me like a second heart. – John Banville
It is, perhaps, hard to put an age on when a human being can be said to have a past. My memories of childhood and my adult observations of children, have led me to conclude that they live very much in the present. This, of course, is a function of a child’s consciousness, but it is also due to the relative shortness of their lives, they simply have not got much to dwell on, they do not have a past. The adult observer might enjoy and sometimes envy the children as they pass these years before moving towards adolescence and the growth of adult consciousness.
A teenager, in transition with an everchanging brain, can not really claim a past either, as their past is of them as children, it is perhaps not until we reach our early 20s that we can fully reflect on memories of events involving a person that somewhat resembles ourselves.
It is then that we experience, and not for the first time all of times tricks. It is, of course, fashionable to be a person who rejects the past and focuses firmly on the future. Social media is full of such motivational wisdom, such coping methods are desirable and exude strength and positivity. And yet the past has a grip on us at all times. We prepare for the future safe in the wisdom that what we do today will lay the foundations for our tomorrow, and yet in that future, we are to reject the painful musings as we agonize over old mistakes and judgments that have led to this current moment. This is hard to reconcile and lays squarely with the pragmatic rather than the rational. Our minds are continually confronted with painful and joyful memories of the past and we split our time between sifting through memories and staring in tentative wonder into an unknown future. We can, of course, through concentration achieve a full connection with the present. And then that pleasant feeling we experience after being lost in the moment thanks us for freeing us momentarily from the rhythmic ruminations of conciseness.
We are creatures of emotion, some more than others, and phycologists will often point to the hugely damaging effects of rumination. The memes we read on social media urging us to stay present and create a better future is well-meaning but paint an incomplete picture.
The idea of linear time is, of course, a human construct and bares no resemblance to the actual mechanics of time in our vast universe.
Our conciseness is actually more in tune with the truth of time then our 365-day callendar. It is part of our humanity to dwell on all of the time dimensions. However, as we are cloaked in our thoughts all we can do is try to control them or suffer. This, of course, is an ancient battle and the peace that can be gained from conquering the wanderings of the mind is present in many ancient religions.
Joyful memories will be replayed, and achievements lay brick upon brick behind us, but pain lives there too. Depression is often a mind trapped in some trauma of the past. The great rock singer Kurt Cobain never fully escaped his childhood, the traumas were too deeply ingrained in his phycology and he could never really shake it off. His wife Courtney Love found a man who was handsome and talented and yet could not escape his past, with tragic consequences. It is valuable insight when applied to one’s own life as you look back and look for reasons why you did or didn’t act in the right way, usually, after examination, your life up to that point holds the answers.
But the messages sent from the past are not all bad. I play guitar to be present to reach what the greeks called “Gods time” when my mind is fully focused on the activity of the now, I play because I learned, in the past. I am alive because my parents met, by chance in a bar, in Ireland. I am white and live in the affluent west for the same reason. The past defines me, utterly. To casually relegate the past to an “it’s over” mindset is brutal, pragmatic but also fails to acknowledge how life works.
I live with the past for good or for ill. I live there maybe too much. There is no doubt a live well lived is a busy one, to avoid too much thinking.
James Joyce’s famous short story “The Dead,” tells the story of women who loved deeply a man who died when she was young. It was defining love and she spent the rest of her life unfulfilled as a result. Joyce examines the reality that people do not really die until the last person who knew then dies as well. They live in our minds and cast very real feelings from love to grief, to shame over us in our waking hours. The power of human emotion itself is fueled by the time a grievance or a love needs time to grow and then lives in our souls even if we seldom think about it.
On the subject of love, some if not all of the greatest art created on this subject was crafted through the lens of reflection, a story told of lost love or a painting or sculpture commissioned by a grieving partner. The greatest songs are seldom sung about some imaginary future, they dwell on lost loves and romances that exist now only in one’s memories.
Indeed see the tombs of the great graveyards of Europe with their elaborate tombs to commemorate the lives of loved ones who live now only in the minds of those they left behind, and then only in cold stone.
Yes the present is all we have but the present is merely the skin coating the body of the past, we walk and breathe it, and it is human to do so, it is defining, and powerful and must be treated with respect. There is a fatalist view that we have no choice in any of this of course that we are merely living lives mapped out already, and the older we get, as we run out of road the more we forgive ourselves for the past and enjoy the time we have left.