I was reading an article in National Geographic about disappearing languages throughout the world and it made me think about the value of the past. Of course, we all learn from history – the mistakes and triumphs of those who lived before we came along. That’s a given. We tend to repeat many of the mistakes others have made in the past – we as humans don’t seem to learn our lessons very well unless they are actually our very own – but if we pay attention and make some good choices, the past can point us toward wisdom. There’s also a point at which being too concerned with it can be damaging. Dwelling on your past mistakes, for example, only keeps you stuck in a loop of guilt and hopelessness. Or as I have done before, looking back too fondly at days gone by can distract you from today and tomorrow and the loveliness of them.
I tend to see my young childhood through rose-colored glasses. This clearly means I was provided a safe, fun environment in which to live, and is good. I’m certainly glad I don’t see it otherwise. But it’s a memory – appropriately soft edged and slightly blurry – simply to be enjoyed in the lobe of my brain that handles that sort of thing. Not longed for as a lost golden age.
Then there are the hard years of life I’ve lived. When my mom was sick, or when marriage was rough, or when I moved to L.A. and was overwhelmed at the change, and so on. I could relive again and again those difficult times, too. But thankfully, over the last decade, I have begun to learn to let the past go. It’s there to see from afar – to remember fondly and to learn from. But I’ve released some of it’s grip on me, able to move on without the baggage of before. Free to look ahead.
I’ve mentioned before that I have what the Gallup Organization’s Strengthfinder test calls the “Past Theme.” In contrast, my husband fits the description of the “Futuristic Theme”…
▪ You love to look ahead and think wistfully, “Wouldn’t it be great if …?”
▪ You are fascinated by the future and create detailed pictures to pull you forward.
▪ You are sometimes called “a dreamer,” other times a “visionary.”
▪ You serve as a source of hope for others when you speak vividly.
Yes, that is my husband. I, by nature, am exactly the opposite. I am not a dreamer. In fact, I often squash my poor husband’s lofty ideas before they have a chance to live at all – something on which I am working. But Marc’s forward-looking tendencies have impacted me. In him, and in others, I’ve seen the freedom of putting the past behind and looking ahead. I’ve certainly not morphed into a futurist – I still see the past as a useful tool, or a fun thing to watch from the window of your mind from time to time, but I’m learning to leave it back there. It informs what I do now; It doesn’t cast a shadow.
It occurs to me, though, that it doesn’t have to be one or the other. Even better than looking back or looking ahead is sitting still long enough to see right now. My sweet little toddler, with pink cheeks, one dimple and a toothy grin, wobbled in to the kitchen today and smiled. Something about that moment, which was nothing out of the ordinary, made me stop and pay attention. I hadn’t gotten much done in the morning, and I had a lot to do before I picked up my son from school, but right then I knew it didn’t matter one bit. We needed to connect. We needed to dance. I turned on some Mat Kearney and we twirled, we swayed, we nuzzled noses, we did some non-descript partner hip hop, and then we sat on the floor and giggled, her warm cheek against mine. We looked at each other and I ached with knowing she would grow up very soon. But then I let that go, too, and enjoyed my ten minutes with Mae before life-in-fast-forward resumed, and it was enough.
Something in the middle seems like the best way of viewing the world. Paying attention to right now. In-between past and future, making today count, no matter what has happened or will happen.
In Tuva, one of the languages the National Geographic article mentions,
…the past is always spoken of as ahead of one and the future is behind one’s back. ‘We could
never say, I’m looking forward to doing something,’ a Tuvan told me. Indeed, he might say, ‘I’m
looking forward to the day before yesterday.’ It makes total sense if you think of it in a Tuvan sort
of way: If the future were ahead of you, wouldn’t it be in plain view?
(Rymer, R. Vanishing Voices (2012, July). National Geographic, Vol. 222 No. 1, 77)
It’s a different way of looking at things. Probably opposite from a futurist’s perspective, and maybe the Tuvans mean it differently than I’m taking it, but it sounds like a nice balance to me. I like the idea of moving away from the past even as you watch it go, facing it but leaving it behind. You can see what’s happened before, but it’s not stopping you. You don’t know what will happen next, and that’s ok. I’m thankful for this new perspective; I’ll probably trip one day trying it for real. But no matter how I view the past or the future, I want to live in the day I’m living (unless I have the flu – sorry, I’m not that mature) and let it be. To see the dimpled baby face in front of me for what it is: now.