This is a Country That Runs From its Past

Here is what we know about the past: It provides instructive lessons for the present.

Here is what we know about the past: The United States appears fixated on avoiding it.

This is a country that so desperately runs from its past, sometimes it seems to surge forward into the future, rather than staying anchored in the present. It’s one of the most frequent and fundamental mistakes of the US, collectively, and of our culture and society — and individuals make the same mistakes, because we are cued by the society around us. Much as many people in this country have internalized the bootstrapping ideal and apply it not just to themselves but to those around them whom they wish to judge, many people have absorbed the idea that the past doesn’t matter and they should focus on the future — water under the bridge, you see.

To run from the past, though, is an error, because it contains lessons important to absorb not just for the present, but for the future, and there’s a reason this country finds itself repeating things that it should have learned better about by now. Doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a differing result is absurd, yet it’s what this country does, time and time again — and it has very real consequences for those living in the US, as well as those in the world at large, thanks to how much of the globe is dominated or at least affected by the United States. When we don’t learn lessons from the Middle East, that comes back to bite us, and it destroys Middle Eastern nations, too. When we don’t absorb an understanding from our past history with civil rights issues, it means that we are doomed to hash out the same battles over and over again.

This doesn’t just apply to governments and policy. It arises in social movements, which should know better yet refuse to acknowledge and look to the past to learn from it. Individuals, too, find themselves caught in the trap of only looking forward, and adamantly not looking back. The very turns of phrase and aphorisms we have about the past continually reinforce this — don’t get caught in the past, don’t get stuck in the past, don’t dwell, always look forward.

How can you look forward, though, if you don’t know what’s behind you, and what backward is? I am reminded of the person standing on a sandy beach, turned to face the soaring headlands and the fragile bridge, captivated by shorebirds and reeds. Those waves that seem to crash so delicately behind, providing a soundtrack of push and pull, churning waters and sighing spray, can turn hostile in a moment, rising up into a towering wall of water that pulls our unwary watcher under. She could have chosen, though, to watch the water — to observe both the beach and the water, to be wary of what lies behind her in addition to enjoying what dreams may come in the future.

Our hypothetical figure on the beach reminds me painfully of our reality on shore. We seem to be under the mistaken impression that exploring and acknowledging the past is somehow dwelling or becoming stuck in it, when in fact, it can be just the opposite — it can be freeing, and it can help us unlock the key to a pattern that will continue to repeat itself until we understand why it is happening, and what its history is. There’s a reason doctors refer to ‘taking a patient history,’ understanding a patient not simply as she presents, but as she lived in the past, because history is writ large on her body and it offers context that is highly relevant to who she is now. In turn, it’s why patients are pushed to be honest with their doctors, to leave nothing out and be frank about details, in order to ensure that doctors don’t miss a key piece of information.

That’s not about dwelling in the past or refusing to project into the future. It’s about learning from the lessons of the past to create a better future — the patient who has experienced mild reactions to latex shouldn’t be handled with latex gloves, to avoid creating a worse allergy in the future. Past, present, future. These things all pull together and wrap together, just as they should in other walks of life. We shouldn’t be in such a hurry to whip through the present and ignore the way the past informs what we are living now, and we shouldn’t be so focused on the future that we don’t learn from what the past has to offer.

We should have learned, for example, that civil rights shouldn’t be a matter for public vote and for the masses to determine, because the masses are often wrong when it comes to creating equality for all, whether out of bigotry, self interest, or ignorance. Yet, we continue to allow such matters to come to the ballot, and we allow public opinion to influence policy in a way that’s highly dangerous. Yet, we wonder why social inequalities persist today — and we can’t understand why they’ll continue into the future. It’s not because of what’s happening right now, but because we haven’t addressed the past and resolved the issues it presents. In a sense, the core lessons of therapy apply to everything in society: Collectively, individually, we must work through our traumas to build a better present and a brighter future.

But this country runs from its past, because it is terrified of confronting the monsters in its closet. It doesn’t seem to understand that a monster left unconfronted only grows larger.

Image: Run…, Nat N.L.M, Flickr