Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: On Remembering the Past

There is something about this time of the year that has a way of calling us back to our roots even though the past is not a place to which everyone may conveniently, comfortably or safely return. For some the past is like a dangerous neighborhood into which they dare not enter alone. No childhood is unalloyed, but in some there was too much or too little of something that made it a frightening place. But we can never really get comfortable with our lives until we are able to visit our past and come to terms with the experiences that shaped us into who we are. If there are frightening spots in our past that we do not feel safe to enter alone, there are people, who by their training and experience, can hold your hand while you go there to tend to scary unfinished business. To some degree our emotional health hinges on the extent to which we are able to embrace those parts of our heritage that strengthen us, and conversely cut ourselves loose from people and experiences by which we have been wounded. There are people from our past who cling to our psyche like chewing gum to the sole of a shoe; and there are people from our past whose absence has left a hole in our lives.

A few years ago I was bemoaning the fact that there are people from the past who have disappeared from my life. A wise friend emailed me this piece of advice which I reread from time to time: "There comes a point in your life in which you realize who matters, and who never did, and will not any more. Then you can embrace those who will always matter. So, do not worry about the people from your past who vanished. There is a reason why they did not make it into your future." Hmmmm.

We are drawn to our past like a moth to the flame. It beckons us and tugs at our coattails. There is something pensive about our personal past when we let our minds take us back to the mixed experiences that define who we are. I am put in mind of that wistful little poem by Thomas Moore: "The Light of Other Days."

"Oft in the stilly night, ere slumber's chain has bound me, fond memory brings the light of other days around me: the smiles, the tears of boyhood's years, the words of love then spoken; the eyes that shone, now dimmed and gone, the cheerful hearts now broken! Thus, in the stilly night, ere slumber's chain has bound me, sad memory brings the light of other days around me.

"When I remember all the friends, so linked together, I've seen around me fall like leaves in wintry weather, I feel like one who treads alone some banquet-hall deserted, whose lights are fled, whose garlands dead, and all but he departed! Thus, in the stilly night ere slumber's chain has bound me, sad memory brings the light of other days around me."

This poem touches a personal place in me. Until both our parents were dead, Hilda and I went each year back to the rural community where we were born and where we grew up during the Great Depression. As we traveled there was a ritual by which our children would entice us to tell them about our past. They would say: "Daddy, tell us about the olden days when you and Mom grew up." Hilda and I would take turns reciting stories, which I am sure were consciously or unconsciously edited and amended. Those stories became polished and perfected gems of oral tradition. But, as we recalled for our children stories we hoped they would remember; we would also recall at a deeper level memories and experiences from the past that we knew they would never experience or understand.

There were memories of feelings, sounds, and sights that defy conventional communication. When it was my turn to talk, I remembered the distinct smell of a new piece of oil cloth bought from the "Rolling Store". I recalled the sound of the steaming stream of warm milk hitting the bottom of the pail on a cold, quiet frosty morning, and the sound of a cow lowing in the distance. I remembered the feel and smell of a new pair of overalls, and the thrill of getting a new Sears and Roebuck catalog in the mail. A hundred incommunicable memories flooded my mind. There were memories of sensations experienced during my youth, many of which will never happen again, but in the private world of my mind they will always be there.

This is a good time for us to look back and be strengthened by the positive things with which our past has endowed us so we may be prepared for the uncertain future. Our heritage is not only in the private recollections that hold our world together; it is heavily endowed with communal memories that speak to us from the past. There are voices from the past addressed to us all. These experiences from the past are a part of the history and heritage that predates the lives of any yet living, without which we are ill-prepared to meet the future.

We have been gifted by a history through which we did not live, which has conferred on us privileges that are unique to citizens of this country. Do not forget that!!! And, do not forget that it is our sacred duty to preserve and enhance that history and those privileges. We also struggle in a web we did not spin, with events that transpired long before we were born. And when we die - as we all must - what we leave to our heirs will be indicative of how responsibly we handled our privileges and how well we met the challenges we inherited as well as those we created.

This is a time to remember, and to intentionally take the torch that has been passed to us and run the race that is set before us. It is a time for us to be selective and take the best from the past and live life in such way as to be a part of the solution to the problems of our age, and not a part of the problems.

Think about that as we close out 2010 and begin a new year.