What holds us to the past? Being on vacation has given me the perfect laboratory to investigate that question. It’s perfect because for me, vacation time is free space. None of the figures who populate my past are present. My mementoes and reminders are all at home. No one is making demands. Except for my companions, no one even knows me.
And still, every day, the past creeps out of crevices in my consciousness, pointing and yelling: “Don’t leave me! Look at me!”
A friend and I shared the first part of this trip to a place new to her, one I’d visited several times. It is intrinsic to human perception to comprehend the new by comparing it to what is already known. Encountering new sights led my friend to share the past stories and place they evoked, and that drew tales from my own storehouse of memory. Then my husband arrived and my friend went home. We’ve been married a long time, so by now there aren’t many anecdotes of childhood that haven’t been polished and displayed to each other often enough almost to be mistaken, in their familiarity, for part of the other’s repertoire.
So instead of talking about the past, we find ourselves re-enacting it.
As our psychologized social discourse has surely made clear to almost everyone by now, traumatic events take up residence in our memories, influencing our behavior long after. The classic case is someone bitten by a dog in childhood, who forever after crosses the street, heart pounding, to avoid any approaching canine.
But it applies equally to individuals and multitudes. When I’m on vacation, I try to avoid the news. Experience has taught me it will still be there when I get back. But of the stray bits that have filtered into my awareness, this much can be said: to a remarkable extent, events are shaped by traumatic collective memory, successive generations seeking justice for grievances visited on their ancestors, ad infinitum.
So what are we to make of this? One position couldn’t be put any better than Faulkner famously did: “The past isn’t dead. Hell, it isn’t even past.” He spoke as a man of the American South, which region’s identity has been grounded for the last century and a half in the legacy of the 1860s Civil War (and for a couple of centuries before that in the shadow world of slavery). As a description of the culture his books so richly described, it rings true.
As a society, we tend increasingly to take Faulkner’s view. What is “three strikes” but a statement of faith in the principle that what has happened in the past will surely be repeated? The end point of this approach has us all locked up tight, as growing prison populations attest. We have a huge self-help industry which seems to proclaim a belief in change, but our social policies (e.g., our expenditures on rehabilitation versus punishment) reveal that on the official level at least, we don’t believe in it.
On the other side of the argument (hugely overbalanced by Faulkner, needless to say), I stand. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that my whole take on life is structured around the persistence of something scientists increasingly tell us does not exist: free will. (See this New York Times piece, for instance.)
All around me, I see people navigating with their rearview mirrors, measuring everything against the past. From time to time, for example, I find myself in a circle of elders. Some face forward, eager to meet life’s perpetually unfolding new opportunities. But there are always some who recount the disappointments of a childhood 70 years gone, their eyes filling with tears as fresh as if the remembered injury had been inflicted that day.
That is my image of dread—what I don’t want to be—which is unable to free myself from old fears and resentments. As so often happens when one’s awareness is tuned to a certain channel, relevant programming arrives. The scarcity of movies on this island led us a few nights ago to see a film we might have skipped at home: Freedom Writers, written and directed by Richard LaGravanese, based on a true story. It has some of the characteristic flaws of its genre (white teacher opens the world to ghetto kids), but not nearly so many as usual. Its message, delivered effectively and affectingly (in case you need a booster shot) is that the past doesn’t have to control the future.
The other cultural product delivered this week by the Great Programmer is a book a friend offered me for beach reading. A Round-Heeled Woman is Jane Juska’s memoir, really a wheel of stories, each spoke leading back to the central story of the author’s late-life search for erotic connection, starting with a personals ad in the New York Review of Books.
I didn’t really like the narrator—something about her eager embrace of rejection annoyed me, or maybe it was her survival-of-the-fittest view of her chosen profession, education. But likability is by no means a prerequisite to learning, and I’m pretty sure I learned something new from her about the possibility of change and choice.
Vacation is a good laboratory for observing one’s behavior, and for changing it too, as my husband and I have been learning. Despite being vastly outnumbered by Faulknerians, here’s what I think: that no matter what was done to you or me, no matter what our people suffered in past generations, so far as I can see, there’s only one question for the living: What now? As Sartre said, “Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you.”