Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: Hope for a Better Past

One of the basic lessons of life, which some people never learn, is to let go of the hope for a better past. In spite of the obvious futility of this effort, we see people wasting years of their lives hoping to change the past. While it is true that we are shaped by our past, we cannot change it. It is what it is. It is not going to improve. But we are more than our past. We are more than the voices and experiences from behind us. We can have total control of our attitude and a modicum of control over the events of today and tomorrow, but we have no control over yesterday.

Some 60 years ago a Russian writer by the name of P.D. Ouspensky wrote a novel entitled The Strange Life of Ivan Osokin. It is the story of a man who wanted to amend his mistakes by living his life over again. "If only I could get back all the chances which life offered me and which I threw away," he said. "If only I could do things differently."

Ivan visits a magician who reluctantly and magically gives him the chance to live his life over again, but warns him that nothing will be different. Ivan watches his life like a screen play. As he watches the repetition of the life he so desperately wants to amend, he sees himself helplessly reliving the bitter failure of his school days, the sweetness of early life, and the reckless experiments of his particular temperament. The second time around he does the same absurd things, right down to the smallest detail.

Ivan desperately pleads, "What am I to do?!" The magician said to him: "Remember, if you go back as blind as you are now, you will do the same things over again. Repetition is inevitable unless you first change yourself."

Ivan Osokin is no stranger to me. I have been seeing him/her two or three times a week for 60 years. He was here last week. Some days I look in the mirror and see him. The Ivan in me and in the "Ivanisky" people I see every week are continually doing the same thing over and over while hoping for a different result. And, it never happens. What is it in us that makes us buy into that same illusion over and over again?! It is as if we are haunted by something that is not there. It puts me in mind of a variant of the strange bit of doggerel by William Hughes Mearns titled "Being and Nothingness - Identity" "Yesterday upon the stair, I saw a man who was not there. He was not there again today. I wish that man would go away." Hmmmmm.

Lousia Fletcher Tarkington once wrote a poem, "The Land of Beginning Again," in which there is a verse with which any reflective and sensitive person can identify.

I wish there were some wonderful place

Called the Land of Beginning Again,

Where all our mistakes and all our heartaches

and all our poor selfish grief

Could be dropped like a shabby old coat at the door

and never be put on again.

There is such a ‘wonderful place'! It is not easy to find. The path to that place requires intentional effort, emotional heavy lifting, spiritual growth and maturity. The journey to that place begins when we give up on what cannot be changed and direct our efforts to what can be attained.

The possibility for a better future begins when we let go of the hope for a better past.