Our past seems obvious. I hear personal history stories all the time. Personal history is almost always in story form is it not? There is a central event with a lead-up, a description of sorts and a conclusion. Nice and neat.
Two things always occur to me when hearing personal history. First, the structure. There is a tight logic to the stories. Not at all like current events which are disjointed and shot through with phenomena (inwardly and outwardly) which are part of the experience but not part of the “story-line”. In personal histories, all the cited facts support the narrative and the recitation is clearly from the exclusive view-point of the narrator. You may think this is obviously the only way it can be, but when you read a great writer’s reflections, you may notice a transparent, objective quality that allows for other facts and other recitations from other points of view.
The structure of personal history clearly reads like an abstraction told many times without the aid of inquiry. That’s why it is rare to find agreement among family members when they recite their stories about the same event. Personal history serves personal interests.
The second thing is that these stories almost always have a dead feeling to them. They may have a purpose and they may be funny or entertaining in the telling, but they are about someone else’s past and who cares about that?
Our experience of the past has a far greater value than the narratives of personal history. Key events in our life literally shape us; they are internalized where they inform our perceptions and actions in the present. To be conscious of this experience of the past, as it mixes with the present, is very different from the stories we tell ourselves. This experience is dynamic, not fixed.
Bringing the past into presence in the present does not explain who we are, as our stories are intended to do. The past is who we are, at least in part. This past unfolds rather than explains. The contributions made by our past change as our perceptions change from day to day and so does their meaning. New perspectives emerge, new interpretations that reflect the exchange that takes place in the present between past and current experience. You are who you were, who you are and who you will be…a continuity through time and also outside of it.
This experience of being opens a window on the third dimension of time. A perception of past and present together in the present can give you a sense of the volume of time. In the present, the past is not dead. It exists as more than memory, engraved somehow in us…all that was, is and will be.
Or say that the end precedes the beginning,
And the end and the beginning were always there
Before the beginning and after the end.
And all is always now.
T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets
Time – July 11, 2015