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Thursday, August 30, 2012

The gift of our past

The other day I was browsing through one of the well-known online newspapers, and came across a piece titled: "If you could erase something from your past, would you?"* I decided to first philosophize about the question, and then consider reading the article. If someone would have asked me this question ten or fifteen years ago, I would have probably admitted and even pointed out which parts of my past I would like to erase. Yet, today I look at it entirely differently. This may be one of the benefits of maturing: Today I see my life as an interesting book. One of which each page is valuable, because it contributes to a fascinating, illuminating whole. And the nicest thing to all of this is that the book is not complete yet, because there are new paragraphs written every day, leading to new pages and, ultimately, chapters.

Of course this doesn’t just apply to me. Everyone is writing his or her own book all the time. The difference may be that we're not all equally interested in creating new chapters. Wim Sonneveld, a popular Dutch comedian from the past, recorded a conference of an old man in a nursing home who reminisces about his wife. In a whining tone he compares her to a beautiful book, but one that he has already finished. This may sound funny, but if you think about it, it may also indicate one of the following facts: 1) his wife was deceased (which I believe was the case here), 2) his wife was alive but had ceased to add new meaning to her life, so there was no surprise element anymore in their relationship, or 3) he lost interest in his wife, as happens in so many long-term relationships, and was thus no longer interested in possible new dimensions she had to offer.

Of course we cannot prevent others from losing interest in us, but we can nourish interest in our own lives. Colleagues, partners, friends, and even family members come and go in our lives, but there’s no escaping ourselves, at least not while we have all our marbles.

And so we continue writing our book, but we do so in our own preferred way: we can fill page after page  with a monotonous pattern of recurring predictabilities, or we can spice up our story with self-development, new experiences, fun and gratifying activities and meaningful work. We can also determine our attitude to previous chapters: we can consider them as failed and regret them, wishing we could forget them as soon as possible, or we can accept them for what they really are: the building blocks that have contributed to the person who we are today, and the person we will be in the future. Ultimately, it’s not the glorious moments that bring us our insights, but the less pleasant experiences of which we may feel less proud or perhaps even detect a small remnant sorrow or shame. Those are the moments that molded us into understanding and compassionate beings and that form the foundation for the insights that we now share with younger generations. I became aware of that once again last week in the first workshop this semester: I told the participants about a major challenge that I faced some twenty or more years ago, and the fact that I did not understand what it would all be good for, but now today, I can tap from that enormous wealth of beautiful and less striking, robust and fragile, clear and fuzzy, sunny and dark experiences, and use them as illustrations in broadening the horizons of those who value it.  So expunge? I don’t think so…
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* The Huffington Post

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