Wisdom Quote: The Past Isn't Past

"The past is not dead. In fact, it's not even past." -- William Faulkner

This famous quote from Faulkner's "Requiem for a Nun" crops up from time to time in popular culture. I remember when Barack Obama used it in a speech on race relations during his first presidential campaign. The same sentiment was paraphrased in the excellent 1999 movie "Magnolia" when one of the main characters says "We might be through with the past, but the past ain't through with us."

No matter how it's said, the idea that our past continually shapes our present lives is a powerful and sobering thought. There's a saying that "the child is father to the man" which I first thought was confusing until I came to appreciate its message.  What happens in earlier stages of our lives has a profound effect on how we deal with the events and feelings that we experience here and now.  Your inner child has been around a lot longer than your adult self.  From this perspective the past "you" is not just older than you are now: perhaps in some ways it is wiser.  This is why it can be so important to remember the value of taking your inner child by the hand and asking it to remind you of what you have forgotten.

Since you can't undo your past the only meaningful option is to learn from it so that it weaves into the tapestry of your life's growth. Remember, the growth of being human is not meant to stop. Be open to continually uncovering deeper levels of meaning to your existence. As Bob Dylan vividly sang many years ago, "He not busy being born is busy dying." The lessons of the past are continually available to the aware mind and seeking heart.

The past saturates the present. It's in the fabric of your reactions to the world around you. It's reflected in how you treat the closest people in your life. It imbues your dreams with symbolic meaning and each of your desires with their particular itch. The past fills your daydreams, resentments, longings and sorrows. It determines what you think you can and can't achieve and underpins your most fundamental conception of yourself.

The past is malleable -- it holds its shape but it's not hardened like concrete. It's possible to reprocess our past experiences in order to derive healthier meanings from it. I once had a client who had a great difficulty asserting herself and taking emotional risks. As we talked more about her history she mentioned an event as a child when she was teased by both her classmates and teacher. She rarely thought of that memory as an adult but it ached like an old wound and crippled her ability to be confident when she found herself the center of attention. I asked her to imagine looking with me through a window into that school to see a bright and lovely little girl, and to imagine a way to help her stay strong and clear about who had the problem and who didn't. She imagined surounding her past self with an invisible cloak of protection and whispering wise and assuring words from her future that spoke to the child from within like a a language beyond words.  It was one of those quietly profound moments that herald the possibility of new directions.  It was as if ice melted from a frozen part of her heart. She was able to start changing her story of herself from ashamed to courageous. She became increasingly able to dedicate acts of healthy risk-taking and assertiveness to that small girl residing inside of her.

This story reminds me of a beautiful song by Sinead O'Connor, "Thank You For Hearing Me":
Thank you for breaking my heart

Thank you for tearing me apart

Now I've a strong, strong heart

 So the past is continually available to dance with the present to create a wise, healed and kind future. As I wrote some time ago, sometimes we get the kind of past that our future needs us to experience in order to grow to our most fulfilled selves:

Many of the most important changes we make at the deepest level of our being come as a result of dealing with the past. We are like iron that requires great heat and lots of hammering in order to be molded into something straight and strong. So it's not too much of a stretch to say that our future selves require a certain painful history to bring about our fullest unfolding as human beings.


From this perspective, therefore, it's possible to say that our future selves need for us to experience a certain history in order to reach our fullest potential.


Imagine your greatest, most evolved, wisest, most compassionate potential self laying a trail for you to find where it resides within yourself. That most realized future self would need to create a certain set of past influences to drive you toward the difficult, necessary and noble work of growth.

So the past matters, very much. People who say "I don't live in the past" think they are overcoming their history by not being a slave to it, but that's like saying a tree has ceased being alive at its core. Embrace your past, make your life yours at the most conscious level possible and you will continue to awake to your fullest potential.


Bill Herring is an Atlanta psychotherapist. He helps individuals and couples live happier, fuller lives. He is also an expert on the topic of sex addiction and other sexual excesses.

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