Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: Shadows from the Past

It is interesting, and sometimes frightening, to see how the past keeps casting shadows over our lives. There are patterns and responses that we learned as an adaptation to circumstances that are no longer with us. The responses we learned as a means of coping with and relating to life in the past may become detrimental to us if not altered after the circumstances that gave rise to them no longer exist. There are images from the past that we hold in common, but some of them are highly personal, and can be understood only in the light of our personal history. Perhaps a reminder of one of the images from the past that many of us hold in common will enable us to reflect on some of those old controlling images that are highly personal.

A nation that wins a war tends to forget, but those who lose never forget. Nothing seems to live on in the Southern psyche more tenaciously than the Civil War. This terrible war ended almost 150 years ago, and the last veterans of that conflict are long since dead, but for many Southerners that war lives on. We tend to obsess about what is known to many as the "war of Northern aggression", or as one of my elderly relatives called it, "the recent unpleasantness between the states". Reenactments are big in the South. Flying the Confederate flag seems very important to many. Just recently I was invited to attend a Confederate ball dressed as a Confederate general, but, alas, I couldn't seem to find my uniform! We have never gotten over that "lost cause" and probably never will. Thus, we struggle in a web spun long before we were born.

Those of us who grew up during the Great Depression have a peculiar attitude about money. This attitude is sometimes conspicuously inappropriate for these present times. Those who grew up feeling that they were very poor, or might become poor, sometimes have a hard time shaking that feeling, no matter how wealthy they have become, and no matter how good the times are.

I had a strange experience in the mid-1970s when I came home from the hospital after a major surgery. I suddenly began to crave cornflakes. Although I do not particularly like cornflakes, I found myself consuming up to two boxes a week! When I told my mother about my strange craving, she had an immediate and startling explanation. She said that during the Depression, while raising five children, she would save money to buy cornflakes for the children who were sick. Only the sick children got cornflakes. The unconscious mind is a veritable storehouse for forgotten memories. The reason for my sudden craving for cornflakes was quite clear. I was sick, and a sick "child" needed cornflakes. When I got well the craving went away.

Having grown up on a "two-mule farm" in South Alabama, where every bit of available energy was conserved for doing manual labor, I have some difficulty reconciling the need to do physical exercise with my old image of saving energy for productive labor. If we had seen somebody "running" back in the 1930s, we would have assumed they were chasing something or that something was chasing them. It violates my unconscious image of the conservation of energy when I contemplate contemporary exercise programs.

As I was writing this column I received the following piece via email from my long-time friend and colleague in California, the Rev. Dr. Jack Taylor.

A passenger in a hired limousine leaned over to ask the driver for the time and gently tapped him on the shoulder to get his attention. The driver shrieked, lost control of the vehicle, nearly hit a bus, drove over the curb, and stopped just inches from a plate glass window. For a few moments everything was silent in the limousine. Then the still shaking driver asked, "Are you OK?" Then he said, "I am so sorry, but you scared the daylights out of me." The badly shaken passenger apologized to the driver and said that he did not realize that a tap on the shoulder would startle him so badly. The driver replied, "No, no. I am the one who is sorry. It is entirely my fault. Today is my first day driving a limo. I have been driving a hearse for the past 25 years."

Perhaps Nobel Prize winning novelist, William Faulkner, was right when he wrote, "The past is never dead. It's not even past".