What the Past Gets Wrong

These days I tend to forget how much we know about finding our way through really difficult, depressing, anxiety-fomenting, soul-sucking, hope-chilling stuff. I wrote Speak Life: Crafting Mercy in a Hard-hearted Time in 2018 before COVID, Ukraine, the 2020 election and insurrection and falling glaciers. This section, from pages 182-3, 196 helped me today.

The past deceives us by asking us not to take the possibilities of our one life seriously.

In anxious times, we listen too carefully to all that the past teaches us about what has not worked. The past hides the most important things in plain sight, including the simple fact that history doesn’t repeat. It happened, but it isn’t destiny. It circles, as does the hawk above me as I type this; once, twice, then another six times, but never in quite exactly the same way. Finally, having seen enough, it lets the breeze over the ridge carry it down and away into another life. History is not a circle but a spiral, never quite repeating.

The challenge for us short-lived ones is that some life les- sons take more than one lifetime to clarify. This is especially true for the bad things. Wrong can triumph for a long, long time, far beyond what you’d think possible. Bad people often get away with things for pretty much their entire lifetimes. Sometime their kids pick right up where the parents left off and they get away with bad things, too. But Dr. King wasn’t delusional when he saw the arc of history bending toward justice.

Sometimes it takes more than one lifetime for even the most obvious good things to mature. All my life it seemed obvious that the sun was giving us plenty of energy every day, beyond any possible amount that could ever be needed. That could be enough for billions of trees to grow and trillions of plankton to feed all the fish in the swirling oceans. Or surely enough to warm our little human houses and to allow us to move around without bothering the horses. It was always out of reach, the iconic tree- huggers’ folly. Until in a blink it wasn’t. And in another blink the Peabody coal train was the folly. China—no country of tree huggers—cancelled a hundred coal-burning power plants and started covering desert sands with silicon wafers. Some dreams long deferred are just waiting for the converse to emerge.

This is not just true of technology, which is created by small groups of people acting ahead of what seems possible at any given time. In recent decades millions of wholly new organizations have been invented for the purpose of doing something new, usually intended for some sort of good. These groups compete with each other in some sense, always prompting someone to complain about innovation clutter. But mostly they compete with the past and almost always win.

Love sees most clearly in the aftermath of loss, betrayal and pain, when the cynical smirk seems most appropriate. Love does not always see how to restore that which is broken, but it always has eyes for how life can find a way. Love in the aftermath of loss is tuned with the sensitivity of a bruise.

I tend to hang around with groups of people with hopes verging on grandiosity. On many days we actually do think about world peace, saving the planet, and about the least of these. This is good; what else should grownups think about? The challenge is that we are deceived into thinking that the hero of the story always tends to be…us…because we can see the possibilities and those possibilities tend to be extrapolated from our kinds of skills. We can see the future and it looks like more of us at an even larger scale: Health insurance for all (so that everybody could come to our great hospitals!), public health unleashed to prevent everything possible to prevent, education so wide- spread and enlightened that nobody would ever do anything dumb again.

History exaggerates what has happened and undervalues what could have happened just as easily. And it says little about what is possible, what has not yet happened. Emmanuel Kant insisted that the possibilities are just as real as the actualities (McGaughey & Cochrane, 2017). The possibilities are all we can do anything about.

The point is to give our life to the possibilities that allow life to emerge with the most mercy and justice possible. History also exaggerates the power of boundaries and differences, projecting today’s identities inappropriately backward across time, giving them far more power than they deserve. The actual testimony of life is all about dissolving boundaries, especially the ones in our head.

Love sees the unpredictable consequences of life more accurately than history because it knows that the future is not determined yet. The most important thing about the future is that it comes out of the utterly unpredictable expression of collective creative imagination.

 Nothing ignites the imagination like love.


About garygunderson

Professor, Faith and the Health of the Public, Wake Forest University School of Divinity. NC Certified Beekeeper Author, Leading Causes of Life, Deeply Woven Roots, Boundary Leaders, Religion and the Heath of the Public, Speak Life and God and the People. God and the People: Prayers for a Newer New Awakening. Secretary Stakeholder Health. Founder, Leading Causes of Life Initiative
This entry was posted in boundary leaders, leading causes of life and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply