Fear is usually about the present or the future – about what other people do or might think about you, about work or financial set-backs that might be happening now or soon, about illnesses or injuries that could befall us or others.
As for the past, we don’t generally think of it as scary. We enjoy most of our personal memories, we usually stay away from the awful ones, we celebrate holidays that commemorate secular and religious history, we know a bit of the background of topics that interest us. Among people I know, one knows well the history of the community college movement; another, life in New Jersey during the Depression; another, life in Java and a Japanese prison camp there; another is a world historian; another, an anthropologist; another knows the history of musical comedy; another, an evangelical, studies the Bible. We all have “our” pasts where we navigate easily in the comfort zones while avoiding the danger zones such as memories of our worst mistakes or scenes of violence.
But all our zones, together with all the zones of the people we know, amount in an obvious way to only a tiny portion of the past. I suggest that the past as a whole is an intimidating piece of work. It is huge and incontrovertible. While our perception and understanding of it may change, in itself it is a growing mass of de facto. It is gone and beyond our grasp. We learn about and remember people in the past, but they are further from our understanding than we think. “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there,” wrote novelist L. P. Hartley (quoted in Kevin Reilly’s Worlds of History). Especially foreign are the mega-pasts of billions of years of the early universe and the slow start of life on earth, in comparison to such familiar narratives as Genesis. And to make matters worse, this strange past is playing itself out now, here and everywhere. We might understandably feel uneasy with the weight of the past behind us and out of sight but always at our backs.
If we were to aspire to being at ease with the unbounded past instead feeling so comfortable with only our narrow slice of it, what might that lead to? When it comes to our future, we find that less daunting if we can describe the goals and objectives that we plan to pursue. What if a parallel exercise were to inventory the past, to take stock of the topics from the past that we know about along with those we’ve only heard of or can imagine? What if the friends who I mentioned above met together to talk about the pasts they know best and the others they wondered about, in a discussion about “The Scope of the Past”? What if they all tried to diagram their comfort zones, their not-so-comfortable zones, their danger zones, and their unknown zones? What if school children were asked to draw or sculpt the whole past?
Our sense of history would widen. Our awareness of other peoples and how they lived would grow, as would our insight about the ways that societies change and about the complex nature of causes.
Our understanding of time would broaden. American bromides about leaving your past behind and living in your present and your future would be revised to include “staying open to the past.” We would be wiser about how slowly the important things in life happen and about the rhythms of the seasons, years, and life span.
Our spirituality would deepen. I don’t mean that more people would follow religions. I mean that our sense of place in the universe and in the long story of life on the planet would be sharper. Our being alive, and all the joys and travails of being alive together, would mean more.