When you’ve read the work of a particular author, and one of his phrases becomes popular, chances are you’ll feel in sync with its message. It’s not as if George Santayana’s writings have appeared next to People Magazine at the check-out stand, but one of his maxims is now widely quoted: “Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Whenever I hear it, I think of how Santayana came into my life. I wasn’t studying philosophy and Santayana jumped out of the pack of philosophers. I read Santayana as if he was the sequel to See Spot Run and the Hardy Boy mysteries. His books introduced me to the exploration of the human mind, and our ability to reason and appreciate beauty.
Santayana was not the only discontinuity in my education. My mentor, Eric, a refuge from the second world War in Europe, came into my life when I was a teenager, and he inspired me to delve into both Santayana and another writer. “Language and Silence” by George Steiner became my introduction to Western literature. But Steiner believed that–in the aftermath of the holocaust—we can no longer assume that being educated in the humanities makes us better human beings. And perhaps this was too early for me to feel that the literature and philosophy of the Western world has already been broken?
Clearly the importance of remembering the past is a lesson drawn from the broad sweep of history, where, like Sisyphus, we have to keep learning the deadly costs of our ignorance and indifference; and where we keep being reminded that we should have felt more grateful for the courageous efforts of those who have come before us.
Then this morning, I had an insight about my own past, closer to home than the passage of centuries. I realized that I am repeating my own earlier life; that in the span of just a few years, a dynamic that took decades to unfold earlier has reappeared. From the age of 32, when I left Montreal, until I was almost 50, and I took a six- month retreat at the Nyingma Institute in the early 1990’s, the vision which I was pursuing was to develop the skills needed to be at home in this world. Then that retreat changed my vision and for the next 30 years I was no longer striving to develop better survival skills: I was discovering my forgotten dreams and inviting them to reshape my life.
Life was kind enough to support both of these two visions. In my flight into a larger world, I discovered, once I dared to look, that the world was open and that I was free to develop relationships that let me be part of it. Then, without having to leave the life I was already living, I discovered that I didn’t need to worry about my own prospects, if I just accepted the opportunities that arose naturally; I began working with people with disabilities and writing books, and my life became increasingly interesting and fulfilling.
I felt that I had found my path and that I would not need to find another one in the twilight years of my life.
However, clouds were gathering in the East. I tried to meet them with confidence in the ways I had found had been nourishing to me. But when my son died in 2019, that confidence was shattered. A realization was forced upon me: the path I had found had not been enough to save him.
Now I am repeating those two earlier phases, which took me so many decades to navigate the first time around. I am once more trying to learn how I can cope with the world that closed its shutters on my son. However, I am already realizing that coping skills are not enough; and a second kind of understanding is emerging. As happened earlier, I am finding that life is not closed to me in the most important ways. It’s not that old, neglected dreams are once again bobbing to the surface. It’s more that, step-by-step, I am moving out of preoccupation with my own spiritual survival and seeing that there are many other people in my world who have also been wounded and who are trying to live with hope and find ways to be a caring person. Those are the people from whom I want to learn and with whom I now feel most at home.