What Do We See When We Look Back? Another Perspective for Understanding Your Life

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Many therapies begin by looking backwards. Often, however, the deep-dive into the ocean of previous hurts focuses only on the patient and a tiny number of others. Is more needed?

The circumstances surrounding any life are worth thinking about. The historical conditions in which one lives can be enormously important to a backward glance at life, yet therapists are not experts in history. Nor are we routinely specialized in philosophy, sociology, and religion, the better to understand those who visit us. A counselor might not readily recognize the significance of all aspects of a new patient’s life.

When I encountered someone from an unfamiliar religious background I attempted to learn more: not only from my patient, but from religious writings. If clients came to me with existential questions, a sense of emptiness and a lack of life meaning, we sometimes talked philosophy.

In the course of my career I needed to learn about poverty and anti-Semitism in the old Soviet Union, the arrangement of marriages among Pakistani-Americans, and the importance of loyalty and family responsibility to the Mexican-American community.

This necessity not only helped me better perform my therapeutic work, but enhanced my understanding of people and the world more generally.

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One can also fool oneself by ignoring the ideas and trials of our distant ancestors.

People of all cultures and times faced the same core issues, although sometimes in different ways. The human experience changes in terms of technique — technical knowledge, astonishing new devices, and skills — but not the basic concerns of living: love, friendship, competition, survival, loss, morality, work, and play. The same conundrums are forever present: happiness, honor, success, failure, self-awareness, self-interest, integrity, rationalization, sadness, greed, and one’s responsibilities to others.

Yes, we now face possible global catastrophe from weapons or climate change; but robbers, kleptocrats, and rape were always present. Discrimination today usually takes a different form than widespread slavery, but human rights are still an issue. War and natural disasters, famine, and disease always threatened the human race. Life was never stress-free.

We benefit by recognizing the common humanity we share with individuals who are “different,” whether they are our contemporaries or people who shared our cultural past. We risk laughter at those from non-Western backgrounds, their styles of hair and clothing. They behold us as well, however, and might share the same tendencies to mock or disapprove.

Old photos can be treated similarly. As we turn the pages of antique family photo albums it is difficult to relate to those who seem ancient, even if they lived only 50 years ago. We too will become dated creatures to newer generations. If you assume those of different times offer nothing worth learning, then you have closed your mind, blinded yourself, and reduced the possibility of self-knowledge and better human relations. Moreover, you render your personal history impotent in its ability to have any substantial impact on those who follow you.

Old words remain relevant. Even if Aristotle lacked an iPhone and wore a toga, he had a good brain, as did many others before and after. We are silly not to attend to his thoughts. Our ancestors didn’t know everything and many justified slavery and maltreatment of women, but they recognized much of importance about the human condition.

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Closer to our own time, the men and women of the last century had more than a taste of modernity. They owned cars and worked in factories, knew oppression and misuse of workers, used the telephone, and (from 1922) received regular radio broadcasts. They realized what money could buy and what it did not. Therefore, I offer you eight quotes from those who lived in the 20th century and earlier.

Our personal problems are not new. Others walked in our shoes, even if they wore sandals, wooden shoes, or no footwear at all.

And remember: we read history and philosophy not to understand old and dead civilizations, but ourselves. Perhaps you will dismiss the eight ideas by the seven people you find below. On the other hand, I expect some will speak to you, especially (I hope) the final one:

 

Raise your words, not your voice. It is rain that grows flowers, not thunder.

— Jalaluddin Rumi, 13th century Persian poet.

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You will be broken. Your try to flee it, but ultimately you can’t, you can only fritter away your time on the planet. Yes, be prudent, but don’t think you will escape.

The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.

— Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms, 1929

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It is really true what philosophy tells us, that life must be understood backwards. But with this, one forgets the second proposition, that it must be lived forward. A proposition which, the more it is subjected to careful thought, the more it ends up concluding precisely that life at any given moment cannot really ever be fully understood; exactly because there is no single moment where time stops … .

— Soren Kierkegaard, 1843.

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The following words are those of H.L. Mencken, published on July 26, 1920 in the Baltimore Evening Sun, from an essay entitled “Bayard vs. Lionheart,” concerning the difficulty of electing good people to national office:

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In small areas, before small electorates, a first-rate man occasionally fights his way through … . But when the field is nationwide … and the force of personality cannot so readily make itself felt, then all the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre — the man who can most easily and adeptly disperse the notion that his mind is a virtual vacuum.

The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. … On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.

———–

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

— Theodore Roosevelt, April 23, 1910: Paris.

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The moment we no longer have a free press, anything can happen. What makes it possible for a totalitarian or any other dictatorship to rule is that people are not informed; how can you have an opinion if you are not informed? If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer. This is because lies, by their very nature, have to be changed, and a lying government has constantly to rewrite its own history. On the receiving end you get not only one lie — a lie which you could go on for the rest of your days — but you get a great number of lies, depending on how the political wind blows. And a people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and to judge. And with such a people you can then do what you please.

— Hannah Arendt in a 1974 interview with Roger Errera.

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Dorothea Brooke is an admirable fictional character in Middlemarch (1871-72) by Mary Anne Evans (better known by her pen name, George Elliot). Ms. Brooke is here speaking to the young man who loves her. He has just said that without her he would have nothing to live for:

That was a wrong thing for you to say, that you would have had nothing to try for. If we had lost our own chief good, other people’s good would remain, and that is worth trying for.

At the end of the book Dorothea’s life is described in terms of her quiet impact on others:

Her finely-touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature … spent itself in channels which had no great name on earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts, and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number (of people) who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

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The photograph at the top is called Blessed Art Thou Among Women by Gertrude Käsebier, from 1900. The computerized image of Aristotle is the 2005 work of Kolja Mendler. A photo of H.L. Mencken follows. The final image is a sketch of Hannah Arendt by Albarluque. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

6 thoughts on “What Do We See When We Look Back? Another Perspective for Understanding Your Life

  1. Dr. Stein, thanks for another interesting and inspiring post.

    I agree when you say: “We benefit by recognizing the common humanity we share with individuals who are “different,” whether they are our contemporaries or people who shared our cultural past.” Our lives would be so much more richer and enjoyable.

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  2. I lost a dear friend of 20 years a week ago, and I can think of no better quote than the final one you offered. Thank you for such a thought-provoking essay.

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  3. My condolences, Harry. Your friend must have been quite a person.

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  4. Another wise and thought-provoking post, Dr. G. Thank you. Its message is one I try to impart to my students as we study US History. My teenage daughter and I enjoyed studying history together. She often remarked on the similarities of the events and problems of long ago to our modern times. This spurred an interest in philosophy which led her to the same conclusion found in Ecclesiastes: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” It’s quite remarkable–from Socrates to Spinoza to Thoreau to Heschel. I’ll leave you with 3 quotes from Marcus Aurelius, Roman emperor, 161 AD. that I think reflect the essence of your wonderful blog. 1. The universe is change; our life is what our thoughts make it. 2. When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive – to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love. 3. It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.

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    • Thank you, Evelyn. Yes, Marcus A, who wanted to be reminded every day that he would die, so as to seize the day. The Stoics knew many things. No. 3 on your list is one of my favorites. Unfortunately, philosopher/kings are in short supply today. I suppose they always have been, but at least we once had leaders who knew who Marcus Aurelius was.

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