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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

Embracing the Past

In the dark hours before dawn, I’ve been known to think about my past—often with some degree of chagrin and regret for things done and left undone. I accept that as part of the human condition—at least this human’s condition-- to reflect on where I have been even as I try to navigate wherever it is I am going.

A friend recently mentioned a well-known aphorism attributed to Henry David Thoreau: “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.” It is often quoted as an affirmation of the sad plight of humanity, as if we all suffered from a soul deadening dissatisfaction with our lives—an existential depression that accompanied us throughout our days. But that is not a lesson I have learned by living and I doubt very much whether there is in fact truth to be found in the common interpretation. In fact, I would assert that those who are desperate are seldom in any way quiet about it, but that few of us examine our lives in a way that would cause such angst. I want to suggest a friendly amendment. At his trial for the crime of impiety, Socrates said that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Whether you hold to this stark injunction or not, I suggest that it is only those who are willing to examine their lives fully that are prone to feeling remorse, regret, and ultimately consolation. The rest of us—well, we are busy distracting ourselves from such examination.

Those sleepless hours—they serve an important purpose. They are the evident process by which men and women strengthen their conscience, learn humility, and grow compassion. Distraction—the day to day business of living without examining our interactions with others, our imprint on the world at large—leaves us empty; blissfully or not unaware of the consequences of our thoughts and actions. Those that struggle –that suffer the awareness of their motives and deeds pay an exacting price for their revelations, but they are many times rewarded with the opportunity to become.

I do not say become what, that is not fore-ordained, but becoming, evolving, changing and ideally improving ourselves can only occur when we are prepared to see our past as it really was. We are imperfect—at least I know I am—and guess that most of us are. We are born without answers to any of life's great questions—and some of us may not want to know the answers. But those that do—that search for meaning in their lives, that want to become a better version of themselves have only one course available; to feel with clarity the moments when we erred, when we hurt another, when we looked the other way at an injustice or practiced it ourselves.

At times like this I have felt remorse and regret—that is the necessary lesson. I have also felt redemption in the knowledge that I have yet the opportunity to step away from a path that would lead me to endless repetition of my transgressions. It is then I can see more clearly that life is not the sum of what we do, or what we leave behind, but who we have become. I embrace the past, knowing that by doing so I am creating my future.

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