Trying to change the past is pointless. Getting clarity about its enormous influence—positive and negative—isn’t. Philip Roth, a great American writer, gets to the heart of it in his musings on relationships:
What had happened? Nothing particularly original. We had a fight, our first, nothing more or less than that. What had ignited the resentment was of course her role of mother’s daughter rubbing against mine of father’s son—our first fight hadn’t even been ours. But then the battle initially rocking most [relationships] is usually just that—the worm in the dream is always the past, that impediment to all renewal.*
Trying to resist, change, or avoid the enormous influence of the past keeps us foolishly focused on it. Yet we’re reluctant to leave it behind, reluctant to transform the pervasive hold it has on our present-time lives. Not doing so, however, results in an endless continuum of living a “now” that is littered with the detritus of the past. There’s no better arena to watch this play out than in our relationships.
When Tom and I were first married we had fights. In my family, growing up, we considered fighting normal, healthy, and, I’m embarrassed to say, even enjoyable. Every time Tom and I would even get close to the possibility of a fight, however, he would politely disengage and simply walk away. I didn’t really understand it at first. To me, fighting and arguing was a way to engage and work stuff out with the people you cared about—I had seen it work time and again. It had passion, heat, drama—I considered it a special part of my Italian heritage. Tom thought fighting meant something was wrong—it implied conflict and upset. He had been brought up in a family in which fighting was thought to be impolite, and just wasn’t done.
If you take the area of relationships—a place (if you can call it that) we all spend a lot of time—the phenomenon of temporality (past, present, and future) becomes pivotal to how things play out. When we’re in a relationship with others, in addition to bringing whatever past we have into the relationship, there is also a built-in, inherent, and implied future orientation. Because of this future orientation—especially when it’s something like a marriage or beginning a new business partnership where you know you’re committing to something for a long, long time—there is an added pressure to have things work out.
Imagine for a moment there are four different ways we might relate to the future: a hoped-for future (one in which we might wish it wouldn’t rain so much in the winter months, or one in which we’d win the lottery, let’s say), an inevitable future (getting older—it’s unavoidable), a planned-for future (perhaps adding to our savings, or putting our kids through college), and lastly a probable-almost-certain future (one that is almost certainly for sure going to be what actually happens).
Each of these four types of futures has a different degree of influence. A hoped-for future likely won’t impact us very powerfully, while a planned-for one may provide focus and momentum, but not necessarily a lot of power. The one that does have power and potency is the probable-almost-certain future, because it is in fact the one that is almost certainly going to be the way things turn out.
If we’re straight with ourselves, our probable-almost-certain future is likely already pretty clear to us—we already see it happening. But let’s say that future doesn’t quite match up to the one we wanted. When we get glimpses of this or any future that is unwanted, our first response might be to say something like, “Oh well, even though things didn’t quite turn out like I thought they would” (or are a bit troublesome and frustrating), “I’m really OK with it.” After all, we think, other areas in our lives are working out, so we can just let this one go. We don’t really have to fix or change anything. It’ll all balance out. However, when we settle things in our minds that way, or make these kinds of accommodations, there is no real possibility—we’ve essentially signed on to an unwanted future.
It’s a temporality issue. Our past experience seems to be calling the shots. Here’s how it works: When we have a bad day, or a bad experience, we put that past experience into our “future,” as something we fear will happen again at some point, and something we want to make sure doesn’t happen again. Or if we have had an exceedingly good day and something we did worked well, we store that past experience in the future too, hoping to recreate it as closely as possible. So essentially, we take our experiences and circumstances, which are behind us, and put our decisions about them—how we feel and think about them—in front of us. In doing so, we lock ourselves into relating to the past like it’s going to happen again in the future. That’s the wiring.
When we recognize and can be with our probable-almost-certain future (not change it, fix it, succumb to it, but be responsible for it), it starts to open up a space in which we can both complete something and invent something. (Completing the past is enormously powerful in and of itself.) Tom and I both laugh now about our respective pasts—instead of being an issue, they are deeply enriching. If we take out of our future everything from the past that we inadvertently placed there, and put it back in the past, then what’s in the future is nothing. Nothing like a “clearing”—one in which we can be fully ourselves. It is from nothing that a created future can come into the picture. If we’re going to create a future—in our relationships, in our work, in our lives—it’s a matter of saying so. It doesn’t rest on anything—it rests on nothing. And that’s the foundation for possibility. In creating possibility, we get to know what’s possible in being human.
* Adapted from Philip Roth, The Counterlife. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1986.