Living in the Past

Let us close our eyes, outside their lives go on much faster.  Oh, we won't give in, we'll keep living in the past.

                                    Jethro Tull


Once while praying (or at least attempting to pray) in a little synagogue in Israel, I was doing my best to use the Hebrew pronunciation of my Romanian forefathers, as opposed to the modern Hebrew that I learned in school.    The kindly old rabbi of this little village, came up behind me and tapped the back of my head.   As I turned around, he said to me “Are you from Poland?” (I must have had a bad Romanian accent.)  I said no.  
“Hmm” he replied “Are your parents from Poland?”  Again I answered negatively.   He shook his head and said “Why are you trying to sound like you were from Poland 200 years ago?   Things there were not so good back there.   You are needed in the present where there is plenty for you to do.  Living in your own past is bad enough, but living in someone else’s pass is just crazy.”   I wanted to ask him if he was into early 1970’s Jethro Tull and did he know the song quoted above.  But before I could prove my banality, I realized that if I brought up a 40-year-old song, I would be further proving his point.

We find our pasts fascinating.   According to many psychotherapists, we can find in our past, particularly our childhoods, the answers for all the reasons that we are so messed up.    We can dig up things that make us smile and things that make us cry.   Sometimes our minds naturally flow back into a sea of memories, which contain much of the wisdom we rely on to live our lives, run our businesses, handle our finances, and build our relationships.  There is nothing wrong with this: it is how we develop and grow.  The past is also, however, a place that is easy to get stuck in: a seemingly comfortable place to live.   In that event, the past can become dangerous.

Nowhere do I see the dangers more than in family businesses.   It is not uncommon for each generation to compare itself to its predecessors and to react to change by looking first for what would my father and uncle do? – like a lawyer looking for a legal precedent that can define how to look at a new situation.   Owners get caught in a time warp where they find it difficult to follow their own instincts because they are living in someone else’s past.   I have also seen this phenomenon in charities, families, and individuals.   The entire concept of an inner child reflects the natural tendency to “go living in the past.”

What the rabbi was telling me was that there is only one place you can live at a time and the only place that is truly real is the present moment.   It is the only time we can make decisions in and, more importantly, it is the only time in which we can experience true happiness.   The past contains experience, wisdom, knowledge, triumphs and failures.  All these made us who we are.  If the past was really so much better than the here and now, we would know how to be content with the present moment.   That is what all my therapists have told me over the years and they must know because they have lots of initials after their names.  If we are unhappy now, then, as the rabbi said, things back there were not so good.  The future, on the other hand, is truly unknowable notwithstanding the claims of politicians, financial advisors, high school guidance counselors, and the perfectly coifed talking heads on 24-hour cable news networks.   It is wonderful to have goals and dreams for the future as long as you understand that they are not real until they are actualized in a present moment. 

This is our great challenge: to live as much as possible in the present.  I read the Wall Street Journal this morning to try and convince myself that I am a serious financial person.  It is amazing how many issues there are that we need to deal with and even more incredible how many opinions there are about what to do about it all from people whose jobs are to comment on such things but not actually do anything about them.  Kind of like what I am doing now.    Seriously, we were all put on this earth at this time in history for a reason.  As the little rabbi said there is plenty for us to do in the present.   So with all respect to great progressive rock bands of the 1970s, lets open our eyes and give in to the moment, let’s go living in the present.