By Dennis McInerny
There would seem to be two major ways of mistreating the past. The first is to look upon it nostalgically; the second is to not look upon it at all, or at least not seriously, to treat it as something which has little or no bearing on the present, and which therefore any brave, progressive, ever forward-looking people can afford to ignore.
A bit of nostalgia every now and then need not necessarily be a bad thing, but what I have in mind by referring to a nostalgic regard for the past is an attitude which is put in place by the practice of imaginatively doctoring and reshaping the past so that it becomes something which, in fact, it never was. It is a practice which fosters a dreamy, sentimentalized rendition of the past, transforming it into a kind of Never-Never Land, to which one is constantly appealing, usually as a standing indictment against every aspect of the present, and the obsessive commitment to which serves to prevent a person from living fully and responsibly in the present. This attitude produces an essentially fictionalized past, into which one can attempt to escape every now and then to elude the pressing demands of the here and now. In the end, a nostalgic regard for the past then turns out to be, ironically, a way of not dealing with the past at all, not with the real past, at any rate. The “past” being dealt with is a distortion; it is what one supposes the past to have been, or, often, simply what one wishes it to have been. Such an attitude can have nothing to do with a healthy understanding of and respect for tradition.
The second way we can mistreat the past is to pretend that it is something which can be blithely discounted, as having no practical applications to the present. This is the delusion which often burdens those people who are mindlessly dedicated to the idea of Progress—understood as that grand and glorious process by which god-like man becomes the mastermind and chief project engineer of his own destiny.
There are any number of clichés by which, albeit perhaps only obliquely, an attempt is made to denigrate the importance of the past. Let’s consider a few of them. “The past is past,” we are solemnly informed, as if we didn’t know as much. But the idea being implied by the phrase is that the past is irrelevant. “You can’t relive the past.” A truth no sane person would be prepared to deny, but a healthy regard of the past does not consist in a futile attempt to relive it, but rather simply in living in the present (that, after all, is our only option), but with a lively sense of what the past has to teach us. “There’s no going back.” Of course not, if by that one means that some sort of science fiction time-travel excursion into the days of yore is a real possibility. However, there is a kind of “going back” with regard to the past which is not only possible but absolutely necessary. Finally, we hear it said, “You can’t set back the clock,” which is flatly false. Not only can we set back the clock, we must do so every autumn, otherwise we are going to be out of step, time-wise, with the rest of the world.
But how is it that it is not only possible but even necessary to “go back” with regard to the past? Generally, we must continuously go back to the past in the sense that we must keep in constant touch with it, habitually refer to it, consult it, review it, all for the sake of our own edification and education. The past must serve as one of our principal teachers. In more specific terms, we must go back to the past because it is the complete record of all of our travels which explain how we got to where we presently find ourselves. Let us say that, with regard to this or that matter, where we presently find ourselves is not where we really should be. Somewhere in the past, distant or proximate, we took a wrong turn, and ended up on a road which led us to a rather bad situation. It would not be a sign of wisdom to be content with remaining in a bad situation. The thing to do is to get out of that situation as soon as possible. And in more cases than not this would involve some serious back-tracking. We would need to retrace our steps, go back to that fork in the road where we took the wrong turn which led us to a place where it is not at all to our benefit to be. To continue to follow a road which has brought us to an admittedly bad situation would be only to bring us eventually to even worse situations. And that would be the height of irrationality. There are times in life when the only responsible and rational way we can go forward is by going back, returning to the point where we became disoriented and started going in the wrong direction.
No, we cannot relive the past, but there is a sense in which the past can be redeemed, by attempting to undo the damage which we have done in the past, insofar as that is possible. This is what the concept of reparation is all about.
We can never live fully in the present unless we live in such a way that we are always, so to speak, carrying the past along with us as we move along from day to day, not as a burden that inhibits genuine progress, but as an illuminating guide that makes genuine progress possible. We must pause occasionally to carefully scrutinize the past, for the purpose of identifying therein the mistakes we have made, the wrong turns we have taken, so that, armed with that knowledge, we can then take remedial action. And isn’t this precisely what we do, on a personal basis, whenever we examine our conscience?
Institutions as well as individuals must live with a lively awareness of the past; they too must, as it were, periodically examine their consciences. As is the case with individuals, institutions can take wrong turns, and begin heading down roads which could lead them into very precarious predicaments. To ignore the past is to poison the present and jeopardize the future. And for institutions to suppose that it is never necessary for them to “go back” in order meaningfully to “go forward” is for them to keep to a road which could terminate in complete disaster.
This article originally appeared in the April 2009 North American Fraternity Newsletter. To receive our newsletter free by mail, please visit our subscription page.