The actor Mickey Rooney said he never dwelled on the past. The baseball pitcher, Satchel Paige, agreed with him. He said, “Don’t look back. Something may be gaining on you.”
Loosely translated, this could be a way of saying “I don’t look over my shoulder and think of my mistakes or what might have been. I don’t pine for the past. What’s done is done. I believe in living for today and looking forward to the excitement of tomorrow.”
Stuff like that. If that’s their attitude, I can go along with it.
But I must part ways with them if they mean, “I try never to recall the past days. I avoid thinking of the friends I knew, the girls I kissed, the joy of triumph, the pain of defeat, the sunsets, the parties, the songs. …”
Looking back can be a wonderful and rewarding thing to do. I sometimes pity anyone who cannot, or will not, think of the past days — no matter what they contain.
Humans are distinct from other earth creatures on a number of counts. One of them is our capacity for laughter. Another: to feel shame. A third is our ability to think of the future. And still another is our power to remember what has gone before.
An often-repeated quote: Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it. Not just on the world’s battlefields, but in our personal lives, as well.
A person who will not occasionally dwell on the past is inviting loneliness and emptiness. For most of us, there may come a time in life when all we’ve got for support is good memories. Without them, we may turn into zombies.
I once knew a sort of zombie. Her name was Zelda. She was 30, and during those years almost nothing had stuck in her mind. She had little recollection of the past, good books, human nature, the absurdities of life and the value of wit. Zelda was not completely dense. She was simply “right now.” Her life was a perpetual game show. When I said, “Tell me about yourself,” she replied, “There’s nothing to tell.” And she meant it.
The mind can serve as an editor or rewrite specialist. It can subdue some of our painful memories and enhance the pleasurable ones.
The mind can expand little victories into big ones. My parents almost never watched me play on my high school basketball team. But one night they came. I scored only a few points, but two of them were late in the game and helped to win it. I can remember my outrageous satisfaction at seeing the ball drop through and knowing my parents were there and were proud of me.
Even past heartaches may have value or appeal. Think of the love affair that didn’t work out. At the time, you may have wept and wanted to take a long walk on a short pier. But time has a way of softening rough edges. You can cope with poignancy. Heartbreak’s aftertaste can become bittersweet. In the 1940’s Irving Berlin captured some of this when he wrote “From out of the past, where forgotten things belong, you keep coming back like a song.”
If nothing else, looking to the past can be an adventure in survival, defiance and escape. It’s marvelous to think about the scoundrels you have survived, the lousy jobs you’ve held and the swamps and deserts you somehow conquered. You can feel your heart swell with joy at knowing you’ll never have to put up with any of it again.
We may not be able to foretell our future or reshape our present. But, if we only try, we can summon and savor the past. We can stroll again through those enduring moments, those roses and pearls that still adorn the hallways of our bygone years.