Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Looking Back, Looking Forward, Embracing the Now

As I sit here looking out the window at the beautiful New Year's morning, sipping my cup of hot tea, I naturally find myself reflecting on the year that has just ended and the one that has just begun. Of course, as my son pointed out last night as the clock struck midnight, marking the beginning of a new year on January 1 is a completely arbitrary decision and in that sense today is no different from any other new day. Except that it isn't, because we humans have chosen to mark the passage of time throughout much of our history. We feel the need to observe the transitions not only in seasons but in units of time such as days, months and years. Different cultures choose different times to observe the passage of time – ancient Persian cultures welcomed the new year with the arrival of spring (which seems imminently sensible), while Jewish culture greets the new year in the autumn (both of these examples being referenced according to the cycle of seasons in the northern hemisphere).

Celebrating the departure of one year and the arrival of another seems to me quite useful, regardless of when one does it. By observing the transition of years we allow ourselves to pause, reflect on what has passed and look forward to what is coming. Just as each day offers us a new beginning in our lives, so each new year offers us an opportunity to begin anew on a larger scale, or to celebrate what has been and renew our commitment to it for another year.

As 2013 begins, I want to remember the past.

I don't want the beginning of a new year to mean that everything from the past is forgotten. That would be unhealthy. George Santayana is quoted as saying “Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.” Certainly we should not forget the tragic events of history, both distant and more recent, lest we carelessly allow such events to repeat themselves. We must not forget the victims in Newtown, nor the young woman in India who was brutally raped and murdered on a public bus. We must remember so that we can take steps to change ourselves and our world so that such tragic events become rarer and even, someday, become a thing of the past altogether. We remember the difficulties, hardships and even tragedies in our own lives because from them we can learn, grow and change ourselves and our world.

We remember the past not only because of its tragedies and sorrows, but also for its joys and pleasures. I do not want to forget the delights of my children when they were two, three, six, nine or any other age. I want to celebrate the times with family and friends from this past year and those before. I want to remember with joy the people who have blessed and enriched my life, whether they are present to me now or not. Remembering them and the times we've shared keeps them close and honors them and the role they have played in my life.

Even as I remember the past, I don't want to live in it.

This past year had many memories, both positive and not-so-positive. The years before it are also filled with experiences both good and bad. Sometimes I'm tempted to wish that I could return to a particular point in my life and live there again. But I can't go back. Seeking to live in the past robs me of the joy and richness of the present, which is the only time I can experience fully. As much as I fondly remember my children in their early years, I err if I value those years over the teen years they are currently in. No matter how fondly I recall my years in university, I can't return to them. I have passed that point in life. I can recall them with pleasure, but I can't live there.

Realistically, I often recall the past through highly-filtered lenses. Those early years of parenting were great in many ways, but they had plenty of challenges. Those student years were enjoyable, but they weren't the pinnacle of my life. When we look to the past as a golden age, we devalue the life God gives us to live in the present and we discount the potential and possibility of the future. Whatever the past held for each of us as individuals and for us as a society, we can't go back there. The way forward does not lie in trying to recreate the past.

As I begin this new year I want to remember the past, with both sorrow and joy as appropriate. I want to learn from it and I want to honor its memories and experiences. At the same time I want to embrace the present and look to the future. I want to celebrate the life I have now, accepting its opportunities and challenges, joys and sorrows as they come without looking back with nostalgic longing to a time that has passed. This year I don't want to live in the past or in the future. I want to live in the now.

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