The Power of the Past

A few spare minutes this afternoon found me finally tackling that pile of accumulating papers in my home office. I’ve successfully avoided clearing this pile of clutter for about four months, claiming all summer I would take care of it only to find myself looking the other way each time I passed by. But today, for whatever reason, I stopped, allowing curiosity to finally have its way: what in the world is in those two yellowed envelopes covered with dust, anyway?

Perhaps I wanted to know because I was already feeling a little more reflective than normal. I’d just read a blog post by Beth Woolsey about my friend and co-writer’s sixteenth birthday party, or rather her birthday sans party because all of her so-called friends stood her up. Because I have known Melanie for several years and because we have shared not only our joys but also our disappointments, I realize the trust Melanie has for Beth to tell her about this painful experience. I can almost hear Melanie’s voice when Beth writes about Melanie’s pain that night some 30 years earlier as well as the night she told it to her friend while the waves crashed ashore on the rugged Oregon coast where they walked. Beth and others recently threw Melanie another birthday party—sixteen plus thirty—one that I’m sure brought surprise as well as healing.

I was still thinking about the power the past has on us when I noticed my paper pile still sitting in my office gathering more dust.

The first envelope was plain, nothing on the outside to give away its contents. As I pulled out a collection of papers, various sizes, I realized one displayed my hand-writing; another was printed by the old dot-matrix printer which was my first foray into a home-computing system (along with the mammoth computer and monitor that took up almost the entire living space of my little apartment). This paper was obviously the typed version of the first document. Finally, in the hand-writing of my pastor at the time, was the final version of my wedding ceremony.

The second envelope contained a check I had written for my first car, a used tan-colored Chevy Camaro. That small slip of paper represented several summers of farm work; hours spent on the tractor plowing endless fields on the western Kansas plains. Money I thought would build in my bank account for the next several years turned unexpectedly into my first car—a small detail my father didn’t tell me when he asked if I wanted to go with him to find one to take to college a few weeks later.

These seemingly disparate elements of a few spare moments one afternoon hardly seem worth noting. In fact, most days I probably wouldn’t have even thought about them for more than a second. And yet, these are the moments that make up the vast amounts of our lives; some monumental that leave us scarred and hurt until a trusted friend hears our pain and invites us to claim a different memory, and ones that shape huge parts of who we are like a marriage ceremony marking a new trajectory, one that seems so different from what that young woman wrote about years ago when she outlined everything from the biblical texts to be used to the points to be made in the homily (yes; I was this presumptuous). Too, these moments that compose our lives are filled with the tension of surprise and regret, like the new-car rush accompanied by the weighty prize of an empty bank account.

But this, it seems to me, is part of the wonder of life. That we somehow stitch together a series of unrelated experiences and they constitute the fabric of who we are. They show us our capacity for suffering as well as the potential of soaring joy. They teach us to travel lightly, realizing the path we have chosen probably doesn’t take us where we thought it might. And they enable us to meet the unexpected with flexibility, or, at least the willingness to trust the outcome will be okay.

And maybe this is part of the power of our past. It represents where we have been and who we are, but it does not have the ultimate prerogative of determining where we go from here.