The Ghosts of the Past

boaterIn Charles Dickens’ classic Christmas tale, the Ghost of Christmas Past came to Ebenezer Scrooge to make him face his own history. There Scrooge had to confront his deepest pains and foolishness. The old man would have never gone back on his own. The Ghost had to compel him backward.

Being much the same, most of us will never make peace with the past until we have been forced to do so. Someone or something has to take us by the collar, as it were, and push us backward to resurrect our past mistakes, failed relationships, and boneheaded decisions, so that keeping it all nice and tidy in the attic of our memory no longer works. But in that confrontation, there is a pathway to a better future.

“The past is the past! Let bygones be bygones,” we say to avoid the pain of yesterday. Yet, the past is only the past if we have learned from it. We can let bygones be bygones only if we have let those days break our hearts. We can let yesterday go only if we have properly grieved over those things we can do nothing about. If we haven’t finished this hard work of the soul, then the past will continue to haunt us like some terrible phantom.

When will we know that we have properly faced the past? I think it is when we no longer have anyone left to blame. We stop blaming those who harmed us, as they were prisoners in their own hell. We stop blaming God for not doing what we wanted or expected. And we stop blaming ourselves for being foolish. For if the past could have been different, it would have been. It was what it was, and it now is what it is.

There is a Zen story about a man who was boating on a river, the morning fog hanging just above the water. Through the mist he saw another boat coming straight at him, faster and faster, not deviating from its course. The man began to yell and wave his arms, but the boat’s heading never changed. 

But instead of gently steering out of its way, soon he was standing in his boat, cursing and shaking his fist until the other boat smashed into him. He was beyond furious until he saw that the boat was empty. Then, his anger evaporated as there was no one to be angry with; there was no one to blame.

This is the story of our lives, the story of making peace with the past. There are a lot of wayward boats out there. We are always screaming, blaming, cursing and shaking our fists at them for what they have done to us. But we’re waging wars with rudderless vessels, people pushed along by the currents of their own pain and suffering – just as we have been. When we realize this, we might begin to put the ghosts from our past where they belong: In the past.

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