Why Look Back?

by Elouise

Isn’t it time to get on with it?  Let the past be the past?  I understand these questions.  I know the feeling.  If I open up that can of worms it will devour me!  And cause anguish to other people.

Henri Nouwen opens the first section of his small book, The Living Reminder, with this story about Elie Wiesel.

In 1944, all the Jews of the Hungarian town of Sighet were  rounded up and deported to concentration camps.  Elie Wiesel, the now famous novelist, was one of them.  He survived the holocaust and twenty years later returned to see his home town again.  What pained him most was that the people of Sighet had erased the Jews from their memory.  He writes: 

I was not angry with the people of Sighet . . . for having driven out their neighbors of yesterday, nor for having denied them.  If I was angry at all it was for having forgotten them.  So quickly, so completely . . . .Jews have been driven not only out of town but out of time as well.

(P. 17, Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Living Reminder: Service and Prayer in Memory of Jesus Christ, HarperCollins 1977)

Nouwen then asks why forgetting our sins “may be an even greater sin than to commit them.” (p. 17)

His answer: “Because what is forgotten cannot be healed and that which cannot be healed easily becomes the cause of greater evil . . . By cutting off our past we paralyze our future:  forgetting the evil behind us we evoke the evil in front of us.”  (pp. 17 and 18)

The bottom line is simple: “. . . . healing our wounded past can open up a new future.”  (p. 18)

But how can this be?  Nouwen says

Our first and most spontaneous response to our undesirable memories is to forget them.  When something painful has happened we quickly say to ourselves and to each other:  ‘Let’s forget it, let’s act as if it did not happen, let’s not talk about it, let’s think about happier things.’  We want to forget  the pains of the past–our personal, communal, and national traumas–and live as if they did not really happen.  But by not remembering them we allow the forgotten memories to become independent forces that can exert a crippling effect on our functioning as human beings.  When this happens, we become strangers to ourselves because we cut down our own history to a pleasant, comfortable size and try to make it conform to our own daydreams.”  (pp. 21-22) 

* * * * *

I want a better future.  I’m on the older side of my life.  Most of my life is now held in memories.  What’s done is done.  But is it forgotten?  Memory is important in healing.

In fact, Nouwen suggests that our personal, communal and national traumas are connected.  When we deal with any one of these, the others pop up whether we wish them to or not.  So where will I start?

Nouwen’s little book helped me decide to go back and begin putting together in writing pieces of my life that until now seemed isolated incidents.  I saw them as ‘my fault’ or sheer happenstance, clearly not keys or guides to personal, relational healing.  Or to what might be happening on a communal or even national level.

Writing out memories of what happened to me and (especially) in me is part of the process.  Unless I do this, I’ve almost forgotten them.  Examining them is a beginning.  It’s not, however, the end point.  The healing happens when I make connections with my present situation–personal, communal and national.  These strange voices and habits of my present life didn’t get there by accident.  Nor did I necessarily choose to have them.  Sometimes it feels as though I’m waking up for the very first time.

Why am I writing about this now?  Mainly to strengthen my resolve.  But also to say this:  I don’t spend much time moaning about my past.

Instead, I relive parts of it as I write it out, name and feel the feelings, question them, seek out trusted counsel, try to make a little ‘sense’ of it, forgive myself if needed, make amends as needed, name my responsibility for the future, and let the rest go.  Not that I forget.  I don’t.  Not that I don’t ever get angry again.  I do.  But anger doesn’t eat my gut out anymore.  Rather, it fuels my resolve and helps me connect with my external worlds.

When I say we need each other, I mean just that.  My courage comes from witnessing your courage.  My determination to continue comes from your determination to continue.  Not in a sick, dependent way, but in an interactive process by which all of us benefit in some unforeseeable way.

I call it Divine Providence.  Call it what you will, it keeps me going.  Even when I feel emotional kick-back or hear accusatory voices in my mind asking “Why haven’t you moved on yet?”

Am I stuck?  Only if I stop looking into my past and dreaming about my future.  Which is actually our future.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 13 December 2014