But Lot’s wife looked back from behind him, and she turned into a pillar of salt. – Genesis 19:26
If you’re unfamiliar with this Old Testament story, God spares Lot and his family from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah but instructs them to not look back as they are fleeing. Lot’s wife, curious and/or disobedient, ignores the warning and is calcified. I wonder if a similar thing can happen to us, metaphorically speaking, if we revisit our pasts at a moment when we need to focus on forward movement. Does looking over our shoulder paralyze us? There have been many relocations and transition points in my life where, in order to begin anew, I visualized what was next to help propel me. And, although I once clung to every artifact of my life (even ticket stubs) as if they were sacred relics, I learned to whittle my possessions, purging the dingy, the defunct and the damaged so I could start with a clean slate. Still, over time, certain memories and emotions would show up and knock at my door.
“Did you really mean to leave us behind?” they ask as they huddle in a sniveling heap on the stoop. If I follow Rumi’s advice, I need to let them in.
Since I’m a porous person, susceptible to believing anything that sounds remotely wise, I decided to see what quotable people had to say about the past (whether and when to look back). What follows is a sampling:
First, the folks who recognize the role of the past:
If you want the present to be different from the past, study the past. – Baruch Spinoza
One cannot and must not try to erase the past merely because it does not fit the present. – Golda Meir
You cannot survive if you do not know the past. – Oriana Fallaci
No individual can be constructed entire without a link with the past. – Achad Ha’am
Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it. – George Santayana
Some people advise moderation in visiting the past:
The first recipe for happiness is: Avoid too lengthy meditation on the past. – Andre Maurois
You can clutch the past so tightly to your chest that it leaves your arms too full to embrace the present. – Jan Glidewell
One problem with gazing too frequently into the past is that we may turn around to find the future has run out on us. -Michael Cibenko
There is a way to look at the past. Don’t hide from it. It will not catch you if you don’t repeat it. – Pearl Bailey
Don’t let yesterday use up too much of today. – Cherokee Proverb
Others suggest ignoring it:
Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment. – Buddha
Most people think of forgetfulness as a defect. I consider it a great benefit. Being able to forget frees you from the burdens of the past. – Rebbe Nachman of Breslov
Do not look back. And do not dream about the future, either. It will neither give you back the past, nor satisfy your other daydreams. Your duty, your reward—your destiny—are here and now. –Dag Hammarskjold
Some don’t conceive of the past as an immutable entity that existed previously:
The past is not dead, it is living in us, and will be alive in the future which we are now helping to make. – William Morris
You are always free to change your mind and choose a different future, or a different past. -Richard Bach
The past, the present and the future are really one: they are today. – Harriet Beecher Stowe
The past is really almost as much a work of the imagination as the future. – Jessamyn West
The distinction between the past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion. – Albert Einstein
The only way to travel to the past — however you define it — is through memory:
The past scampers like an alley cat through the present, leaving the paw prints of memories scattered helter-skelter. – Charles De Lint, The Onion Girl
Memory… is the diary that we all carry about with us. -Oscar Wilde
Everybody needs his memories. They keep the wolf of insignificance from the door. – Saul Bellow
That is my major preoccupation, memory, the kingdom of memory. I want to protect and enrich that kingdom, glorify that kingdom and serve it. – Elie Wiesel
And then there’s the kicker by Jonathan Safran Foer (Everything is Illuminated):
“Jews have six senses. Touch, taste, sight, smell, hearing … memory. While Gentiles experience and process the world through the traditional senses, and use memory only as a second-order means of interpreting events, for Jews memory is no less primary than the prick of a pin, or its silver glimmer, or the taste of the blood it pulls from the finger. The Jew is pricked by a pin and remembers other pins. It is only by tracing the pinprick back to other pinpricks – when his mother tried to fix his sleeve while his arm was still in it, when his grandfather’s fingers fell asleep from stroking his great-grandfather’s damp forehead, when Abraham tested the knife point to be sure Isaac would feel no pain – that the Jew is able to know why it hurts. When a Jew encounters a pin, he asks: What does it remember like?”
I was either genetically disposed towards, or trained to cultivate, this kind of memory, and also indoctrinated to “Never Forget”. Paired with a highly sensitive nervous system that stores the energetic residue of prior events, I often feel like I inhabit an odd contraption that doesn’t easily release me into the present moment. Sometimes writing about challenging incidents in my life can loosen the grip, other times it seems to tighten the apparatus. I hoped that by typing this I would arrive at some conclusion, but all I can say is….oy.
Thanks for supporting this blog:
So many ways of looking at time! I like your exploration of this. I used to spend a lot of time looking back but moved to being more in the present. I realize I don’t think much ahead for the future in some ways. Maybe things shift at different phases in our life. You get to chose which ever one serves you best. We never turn to salt, only ash. So whatever you do is living!
The challenge for me is remaining in the present while writing about the past. While the act of writing happens *now*, sometimes it can call up emotions or memories that start to color life off the page. I guess that means I agree with Einstein!
Thank you so much for sharing this! After an exceptionally difficult weekend, I swore to quit writing (again) so I would never have to do any soul-searching and deal with pesky things like fear. Of course I know better than that. Ignoring the past, running from it, forgetting about it doesn’t make us stronger or better. Sometimes it just makes us doomed to repeat it. Hence the importance of books like the one you quoted from and one I just read “The Girl in the Green Sweater” which is a true story of a family of Jews who hide in the sewers of Poland during WWII. Very moving.
I’m with you in that I believe these things must never be forgotten. Your post was a wise & precious reminder– and one I really needed today.
So glad my words (and the quotes I found) were helpful. Alas, “Never Forget”, as an indoctrination, created trauma in many Jewish children born after the Holocaust because they read about it, remembered it constantly, and projected certain horrible images onto normal life. It perpetuated the fear and anxiety. As a result, I no longer read those books, see those films, read those articles. There are degrees of remembering, and of not forgetting; I’m trying to find a balance that supports health.
I can empathize with not wanting to read something that perpetuates fear and anxiety… the book I mentioned was, I felt, an honor to the love this family had for each other and the courageous acts of others who took care of them while in hiding. For my own sake, stemming from my own traumatic past, it is helpful to read books which have both dark and light… Thanks again for such a wonderful post, Ilona.
Fabulous post! I had a laugh at this “Did you really mean to leave us behind?” they ask as they huddle in a sniveling heap on the stoop”, and also at Saul Bellow’s wit.