One of the more indispensable words of instruction I have ever received came from Dr. Fred Luskin who was head of the Stanford University Forgiveness Project. He said, “To forgive is to give up all hope for a better past.” According to Luskin, what keeps people frozen solid with the regrets and shame of yesteryear is the lingering optimism that they might go back and change it.
Forget that, Dr. Luskin says – not the past – but the prospects of adjusting anything that is now in the rearview mirror. The Apostle Paul said something similar in the New Testament. He made peace with his past and his past self (the self is the hardest person in the world with whom to make peace) with this formula: “Forgetting the past and I press on toward what is ahead.”
Can we really forget the past? No. Painful memories, bad choices we have made, ways we have been harmed or harmed others, the heartbreaking losses of offense and betrayal – none of these can be changed. There is no supernatural whitewash for our memory banks or a little recessed button in the back of our skulls that will reboot our brains.
Yet, we can forget the past if forgetting is as Dr. Luskin has defined it; learning to live so that the past no longer controls us. Thus, forgetting is not an act of ignoring our past experiences. It is integrating those experiences with the present. Forgetting the past is not act of erasing our memories. It is an act of hopeful defiance, whereby we keep living, keep moving, and keep keeping on.
The Chinese have a proverb to this effect. “Break the kettles and sink the ships,” they say. This saying comes from an ancient military battle almost 2000 years ago. A new tribal king came to power and immediately attacked his neighbor, surrounding the city of Julu. The king of Julu called for reinforcements from his generals, and the army came marching to save their king.
But the rescuing generals dragged their feet. They wanted the enemy to wear themselves out; they wanted more time for reconnaissance; they felt they needed to strategize. So the march to save the king became a quagmire as the generals’ strategizing devolved into feasting and drunkenness.
Finally, a junior officer man named Xiang Yu took command. He said, roughly translated to English, “When you go to rescue someone, it is like rushing out to quench a fire. You don’t dillydally, you just go do it.” And that’s what he did. Immediately, he marched his army across the Yellow River to engage the enemy.
Once on the other side, Xiang Yu gave his men three days’ worth of food and supplies and destroyed everything else, including the boats that had brought them across the river, their tents and sleeping mats, their eating utensils, and their cooking kettles. In so doing, Xiang Yu was sending a clear signal to his troops that they had no chance of survival by going backwards. They had to move forward, and they did, rescuing their king.
The way into the future is exactly by this decisive path. We must do the hard work of feeling the pain of the past so that we might be free from it. Then the future calls us forward, not because we have forgotten the past, but because we have made peace with the past; and the only way to make that peace is to quit trying to change what is back there. We can’t do anything about it anyway, so we must learn to let it go.
Will we have to let go of some painful memories time and again? You can count on it. Will some things from the past haunt us longer than others? Absolutely. Will we come to the same river crossing more than once? It is likely. But when we do, the choice will always be the same. “Break the kettles and sink the ships.” Then, one day, the past will be where it belongs: In the past.