Let it Go!
Bill Long 11/23/05
One of the popular psychological nostrums of our day is that in order to "grow" you need to "leave things behind." Or, in less elegant terms, we need to "get over it." We are all aware of how excessive focus on past injustices or slights, the "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" (Hamlet), can immobilize us today. Indeed, one of the first questions that dating adults have to deal with is whether the other is "over" a past flame. Thus, with all the talk about the positive therapeutic effect of letting go of the past, why are we seemingly unable to do so? Why does the past stalk our consciousness like a bad dream? The purpose of this essay is to explore three reasons of why I think we cling to bad stuff from our past to such an extent that it continues to define us today.
I received a letter from a man this week whom I had met briefly years ago. He wrote me because he knew of my work on the death penalty and wanted to respond to some of my writing on the subject. His note was laconic. He wanted to tell me that his brother was murdered 18 years ago by a person whose trial is continuing, that the evidence of guilt was "crystal clear," and that it was right that the "SOB" would be sentenced to death. Since the upcoming trial only relates to the sentence the defendant is to receive (guilt has already unanimously been determined), I have no reason to disagree with the man. But what struck me about his brief note is that he chose to write to me and that the brief message shows that he is far from "reconciled" to the events of 1987.
I don't know what it would be like to lose a sibling in such a horrible fashion as he lost his brother, and I will respond to him with a letter of my own in due time, but I was struck anew by the fact that we carry the past with us because of the intimacy of our attachments in life. When those attachments are brutally taken away, it is like cords being unceremoniously ripped from walls, tearing the plaster and outlets and drywall with them. Not only is light extinguished but considerable damage results. Over and over again the emotional vultures return to feast upon the carrion of our loss. Our life becomes seared. In ancient English law the penalty for manslaughter, a crime less severe than murder, was to burn the hand of the victim slowly--perhaps as a permanent reminder to the perpetrator and to all the world of the crime committed. But no less severe for us is the interior searing, the flames of rage and hurt and regret, that continually lick at our hearts.
We Were Right, Dammit!
A second reason that we cannot really release the past to stay in the past is because we feel we were right or good or justified in the course of action we took, and that rightness or goodness wasn't sufficiently recognized. This is a species of the first, but is analytically distinct. The person who comes to mind to illustrate this dilemma is the biblical character Job. He lost it all in one fell swoop when the roof of his eldest child's home collapsed and crushed all 10 of his children to death. What is significant, however, about the flow of the conversation between Job and the three friends in chapters 3-31 is that Job increasingly wants an audience with God in order to be vindicated by God. As he eloquently says, "I have indeed prepared my case; I know that I shall be vindicated" (13:18). He will not let go of the past, indeed he cannot, because he needs to be declared to be right. He knows that something is amiss in heaven, that God is somehow responsible for this distress, that Job has done nothing to deserve such massive punishment, and he will not rest until he finds the truth of the matter. The friends, if that is the right word for them, urge Job to "let it go" by admitting his mistake, by realizing that this is the way of all flesh, that humans are limited and sinful and that such calamities do not really question the basic integrity or justice of God. But he has to be found "right." And thus, he cannot let go of the past.
How much of our memory of past events remains with us because we secretly desire some authority somewhere to tell us we were right about something? The great irony of the Book of Job is that Job is declared right at the end of the book (42:7,8), but it is only after he gives up his quest for rightness. That is, Job was able to "let it go," principally through hearing the words of Elihu and God (chapters 32-41), and so by the time that God is big enough to admit his mistake, Job no longer needs to be found correct.
God was There
This third reason may be more personal and individual than shared by anyone else. I think that some cling to the past because of a certain kind of belief in God, a belief that runs something like this.
'I trusted God with my life and sought to live life in a good way. God promised through the Scriptures to make straight the paths of those who trusted in him. But, indeed, the paths were not made straight. Sinuous twists and serpentine switchbacks were the result. If I am to 'let go' of that past, even if it is a painful one, won't I be saying that such past is not part of God's life with me? If I "bury" the past, won't I be interring God with it?'
Despite biblical prohibitions against idolatry, we all make the divine in our image. But maybe some of us have a lingering fear that if we try to let go the pain of the past, we will be losing our faith in a God who supposedly was there for us in the past, too. Wouldn't we be saying that we only discover God today by rejecting God of the past? Or, if we say that such a past was built on a misapprehension of God, why are we any more certain that our present is built on a more "correct" perception of God? So, we cling to the past because we are afraid that if we let it go, we will also have to cut God loose from our lives.
Such is the sorry condition of our lives. The past reigns when the present is with us and the future beckons to us. We can't seemingly separate the good from the bad past. It is all one seamless garment. Tearing hear or there tends to disrupt the peculiar pattern of the fabric. But, maybe that is the key after all--to recognize that the peculiar fabric of our lives, shaped by the searing and unjust events of the past, is yet a beautiful fabric. Pressure and irritation create beautiful things in nature. Why should we expect it to be anything different for ourselves?
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long