Venturing into the Known

A thought dropped into my mind a few mornings ago. A bit of background may be useful if this thought is to lead anywhere useful. Otherwise, as often happens, my momentary thought is likely to succumb to one of two fates: it will be steamrolled over by the claim that “I already know this”; or it will be pushed away with the claim that “This is for philosophers to ponder in their towers. But I have a life to live.

As my thought is being tossed back and forth between the jaws of both those ways of avoiding further consideration, I am trying to recognize that my thought has a message to deliver.

I want to share it here. But that raises at least two further difficulties: how do I present it in a way that is useful even to me; and how do I present something individual to my personal situation so that it invokes issues that are universal for all human beings?

I’m concerned that what I now share will invoke a reaction, for even the most empathetic reader, that after 30 months it’s past time for me to move on and not keep dwelling on events in the past. However, what I would like to share is that I am concerned that I don’t dwell enough, in a living way, in that past. And I suspect that this is a common dilemma; how can we remember the past and continue to learn from it. I wrote about this in my journal last Monday.

I think of Jon from two perspectives: Most often I am looking from where I am now, 30 months later, seeing his life as something completed, which I can’t affect anymore. But at other times, as happened this morning, I think of Jon still inside the life we shared and then I feel afresh how he grappled with trying to learn the life skills he felt he needed to succeed.

Then I added something I would like to explore more here. It occurred to me that I feel more alive in the present moment—not to say that this is always comfortable—when I linger a bit in a sense that I am revisiting memories, instead of stopping at the edge of how I have packaged them and labelled them as a completed period of my life. The payoff for stopping outside that version of the past is clear: why would I want to dwell on events that I can’t change?

I wonder if this situation is familiar to others, not in the particulars of my personal experience, but as a way that the mind tries to tame the past by subsuming a crowd of competing stories under one monolithic one, thereby paving over a washed-out area in the road of our lives. What I glimpsed on Monday morning was that I don’t want to forget the flood waters that washed away a section of the road, which I thought both Jon and I were travelling. I don’t want to forget the truest evidence I have that life is difficult and sometimes impossible for people everywhere.

As each of us works through what has come up in our lives and what continues to reverberate deep inside our inner sanctuaries of being, are we noticing an ongoing invitation to look again at the memories that keep peeking out of the packaging we have placed around them? Can we consider the possibility that these memories can conduct us on a journey we have not yet taken?

I don’t think this has to be a journey into regions of darkness and pain. I think the offer is something else.

One hears about the importance of finding “meaning” in loss, so that we can find meaning in life. But we have already been saddled with too much meaning. The problem is not an absence of meaning. We are like a burrow struggling to carry the weight of too many meanings we have taken on, which don’t contribute to an image of ourselves as someone who is able, or entitled to, live a meaningful life. These old meanings with which we try to climb the mountainous trail to the gold mine go by many names: regret, grief, guilt, depression, hopelessness, foreclosure of the future, isolation . . . All those old meanings, left over from earlier trips into the mountains, can seem so acutely meaningful to us; if someone suggests that we need to jettison them in order to live a life with hope and affection, we often just don’t know how to let them go.

Our task may be to discover and welcome into our life new meanings; meanings that honor the importance of what has happened, so that we can hold them close to our hearts; and also honoring and valuing the opportunities that keep coming across the horizon. Perhaps they are trying to let us know that we are meant to be living the life we still have, as fully as we can.

2 comments to “Venturing into the Known”
  1. I LOVE the clarity here Michael. This is the path, of not being carried away by the past to live in a self perpetuating cycle of pain and suffering, but rather to dwell in the present that is vast enough to include not only the past but also the ever arriving present from an open future. 🙏

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