You May be Done with the Past, but is the Past Done with You?

"For the majority of us, the past is regret, the future an experiment"
Mark Twain.
"The past is not dead. In fact, it's not even past."
William Faulkner.

Those of us who have experienced mental ill health are often advised not to ruminate too much on the past, or to speculate too much about the future. Rather, we should try to live in the present, which would, it seems, make us happier. However, I would suggest that this is a rather difficult task, and it would appear, that when speaking of mental illness, the problem of feelings of guilt, regret, or even shame at the way one may have behaved when unwell is a quite common one. I, for example, sometimes find myself drenched in bad memories of times when I have been ill, and the resultant feelings of, if not shame, then just downright embarrassment, at my behaviour rise to the fore. Strangely, it is as I get better that this happens, and I seem to find it harder to justify what has gone before with the reassurances that I sometimes give myself- namely, that I was very unwell then. My mindset now seems to be entirely different, and trying to understand past behaviour can be like unravelling some enigmatic riddle. It appears to me that I was a very different person then, and maybe it is as the novelist L.P. Hartley suggested, that "the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there."
I got to thinking about all this because, as I listened to our local radio station the other morning, there was a phone-in debate about the rehabilitation of offenders, which was broadened out into the question of redemption, and whether it is possible. Many, it would seem, are of the view that leopards don't change their spots, or as the character Ida Arnold put it in Graham Greene's "Brighton Rock": "People don't change. They're like Brighton Rock. The same all the way through." But, having changed a great deal myself, I do believe in the capacity for change and the possibility of redemption. If I did hurt or offend people during periods of ill health, then I can only say that I suffered too, and that through that experience, I hope that I've become a more understanding and compassionate person.
For those who know me well, they would know that this is the case. My parents, for example, who stood by me throughout my experiences, would probably tell anyone that I was a decent, nice human being. But what of the mass we sometimes refer to as "other people". If the phone-in I listened to is anything to go by, then they have little time for those whose behaviour may have been odd or a little wayward. And so it is that it is these people I tend to worry about. This is what, perhaps, is in the back of my mind if I'm asked to disclose my diagnosis in a public way- that my past will somehow re-emerge, and far from helping to dismantle stigma, will somehow reaffirm it. You could say, no doubt, that I sometimes worry too much about this, but I do think that in these harsh times there has been a hardening of opinion towards people like myself who, through no fault of their own, have become ill or dependent in some way. I always have a slight dread, then, of my past, as it were, coming out to play, restricting my opportunities and scuppering my chances.
It is clear that such feelings are not exclusive to those with experience of mental ill health, though. It would seem that for many of us, as Mark Twain stated, "the past is regret". Indeed, one might go further and say, as William Faulkner did, that "the past is not dead. In fact it's not even past." For in our minds our memories can replay the past and bring it into our present, perhaps even letting it shape our futures. We can, of course, say that we're done with the past. Slough it off. Cut it loose. But, although we may try to do this, there is always that nagging feeling, in me at least, that though you may be done with the past, the past may not yet be done with you.             


Lost in Space said…
Interesting post.

The past is full of demons that I would rather leave behind. But equally the experiences we have had make us who we are today.

There are aspects of my past I would far sooner forget, but right now the goal is to see them in a more neutral light. Because without these past experiences, I believe that I would not be on the same path that in the present I am happy to be on.

Sure I would never go back to the dark days of my own struggles with mental illness (if that is possible), but I do feel that those days have shaped me to be a much better person.
klahanie said…
Dear David,
Humble apologies for my delay in responding to your latest posting. In actuality, my own mental health concerns, compounded by some challenging personal environmental conditions, have caused me to be rather wayward from my usual interaction on the internet.
So, somewhat dazed and confused in my own world, I shall endeavour to leave some semblance of a comment.
In light of what I just alluded too, I do struggle with living in the now. The past can haunt and negative speculation can overwhelm and cloud the prospects of a more positive future. Yet I know, we have both come a long ways and the past can be learned from, filed away and the possibility of a happier future can be realised.
A fascinating and thoughtful article, David. I not I've only touched on certain aspects of it. Here's wishing you reflective thoughts of the past that build to a more contented future.
In kindness and respect, Gary
David said…
Dear Lost in Space,
Thanks for your eloquent comment. And I do agree with what you say. I think my own experiences have made me a more compassionate and understanding person. I just think that, sometimes, one can feel that the past sort of hangs over you. I suppose it's how we deal with that and decide how we are going to act in the present that matters.
Very good to hear from you.
Best Wishes,
David said…
Dear Gary,
Sorry to hear of your present troubles. I hope, too, that we can learn from the past and "file it away", as you say. And you are right, we have both come a long way since darker days.
Stay positive, Gare, if you can. I'll ring soon.
Very Best Wishes,

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