Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Tyranny of the Past

"The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there"--Leslie Poles Hartley, The Go-Between

We recently attended a party and noticed a curious thing--virtually all the conversations were about the past (except for those about the future). Now, one could argue this is hardly curious; indeed, we expect it would be the same at pretty much all parties, or any social gathering for that matter. But to us it was noteworthy because it brought home just how difficult is this idea of living in the present. We also found it interesting because of the zeal with which people pursued various lines of thought, as if they could actually change another's life "for the better" by recounting (for example) their new parenting strategy that really works!

This may seem small beer. After all, one could argue conversation about the present would be exceedingly boring. But this would be to miss the point. It would surely be mind-numbing to endlessly discuss one's surroundings, but what of simply enjoying the moment, rather than seeking to make it "count" by doing something, discussing something, etc?

This is no academic exercise. One of the main threads running through this blog is the concept that the notion of identity--built up through years of personal experience--is not only misleading but actually divisive, and the main impediment to achieving a sense of true peace and contentment. Thus, discussions of what we did earlier today, or last week, or when we were children, simply serve to reinforce this notion that "we" are some distinct entity that "matters" more than the hors d'oeuvres.

How could it be otherwise? Once you introduce "your" view and beliefs--cultivated through your unique life--you have automatically set yourself apart from others. For example, we recently had a conversation with a woman from India who told us she "knows" there is an afterlife (and reincarnation). We asked how she could possibly know such a thing, and she responded that she has a friend with whom she is so close that their relationship must have started in another life.

Now...let's think about this for a minute. First, her belief in reincarnation almost certainly originated in her Hindu upbringing. (In fact, she told us she "picks and chooses" which parts of Hinduism to believe.) Second, this belief has been reinforced by the fact that she has a very close friend. So what she terms "knowledge" of this matter is really nothing more than taking personal experiences and attributing "meaning" to them. What of those who were not raised Hindu? Are they simply ignorant of this reality? Or those with no close friends?

Indeed, how is such a stance different from a fundamentalist Christian who takes the Bible as the literal word of God? Both set believers apart from (and above) others who are not part of this chosen group. Is it any wonder religion has been the motivating factor for the vast majority of wars?

The reality is that each of us is but an illusion--a terrifically compelling and realistic illusion, but ephemeral nonetheless. Such a notion, of course, is earth-shattering to most people, so they construct intricate and elaborate defenses against this truth. This is not done consciously (at least for the most part), but rather reflects deep-seated cultural forces. Indeed, children today are constantly told how special they are, that everything about them is unique and thus worth celebrating. Thus, it is not surprising they develop (and cling to) this sense of "self-ness."

The tyranny of the past, therefore, refers to the labels we affix to ourselves based on past actions, emotions, and experiences; the "person" we believe we should be. This is perhaps the most insidious form of anti-absurdity, and the hardest for most people to overcome. The concept that the "I" is nothing more than particles in a sunbeam...well, this simply does not come naturally to most humans.

Once you do come to terms with it, however, it is the most liberating feeling in the world. Instead of facing each day (or experience) as a hodgepodge of fears, desires, and emotions built up over decades, the absurd man wakes up each day as an entirely new person, with a smile on his face and ready to experience whatever may come his way.

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