Thursday, June 4, 2015

Stepping Through the Time Portal: You Really Can't Go Home Again

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
--The Great Gatsby

At some point, probably when your own children are beyond schools and into careers and families and other people, your own past seems less important.  Scott Fitzgerald's most famous book was about a man who was ruined by his past, who could never get beyond it, but that was a pathology, a case of arrested development. 

For most people, the past does not constrain them, if they are lucky and healthy.  Deangelo, in "The Wire" reads Gatsby in prison, and immediately understands it, because he has not been able to move beyond his own past--prison, after all, is a place you are mired in the past; you are there because of things you did in the past.

The Times has been carrying obituaries of men in their late 80's and early 90's who were accused of Holocaust related crimes, but despite the determination to Never Forget, the fact is memories are fading, less so for the victims no doubt, than for the perpetrators, who may well have managed to bury and destroy memories of what they did so long ago.

People who struggled to be the winners in the game of elite educational meritocracies often cling to the past--there are those Princeton grads who will only marry other Princeton alums believing that part of the past is so important it ought to be prologue, but they are clearly clinging to a neurosis.

For most healthy people, you go through each phase of life and you take what you can from the experience, then move on, and realize, that is now behind you. That old story about the Yale coach who tells his players before the Harvard-Yale game, "Gentleman, you are about to play Harvard: If you live to be 90, you will never do anything more important than what you are about to do in this game today," was enunciating the conceit of the Old Blues who wanted to inflate the importance of a Yale education, when in fact, it was just four years at college, and for most people only marginally formative and not really life changing. William F. Buckley was particularly pathetic as he injected his Yale pedigree into every conversation to remind his listeners he was an aristocrat and one of the chosen--of course, his own pathology was transparent. 

The emphasis on schools and creating a record which will follow you through life is specious--the fact is, that great school record simply gets you from point A to point B. Once you start that next school, grad school or professional school or once you start that job, you start over, and what came before really doesn't matter much and cannot hurt you or save you.

Some of this desire to connect to the past may be at play as people visit their dead in cemeteries. There is the desire to hold on to what is actually now gone, alive only in memory. But there is no boat bearing us back. When you walk around places which were important to you in the past, it may bring those memories back vividly, but there is also the empty feeling of realizing even though the physical shell of a building may be there, it is no longer alive; that school yard or church or coliseum is just an empty husk, the hollowed out remnant of the living organism.  

We are not, should not be, borne back ceaselessly into the past. We move forward, and the wake remains behind us. The effort to return is the effort to claim something enduring in the face of impermanence. 

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