‘Learn from the past’ is an oft-quoted piece of wisdom. ‘Don’t look back, focus on the future’ is another one, despite the fact that the latter totally contradicts the former. So, where does that leave us? Well, as is often the case with slogan-type advice, they both oversimplify a complex situation.
Time is something we generally take for granted as a common sense issue. However, philosophers have long debated the nature of time. For example, in a sense, there is no past or future, there is just the present moment. The past has gone and the future isn’t here yet. You could even argue that the future won’t come, because every day we wake up it is the present moment again and the future is still out of reach. However, this does not mean that past and future are not real.
The past lives on in our memory (the subjective element) and in our surroundings – physical and institutional: buildings, organizations and so on (the objective element). Its influence continues to affect us in a number of ways. There are also many ways in which we can learn from what has happened in the past and what continues to happen because of that past.
The future also exists, not as something that we will ever reach (now will always be now, the present), but as a set of hopes, aspirations and fears that will be shaping our present. Every time we do something, we normally do it for a reason, to achieve something, to make something happen or to prevent something happening. In this sense, the present is constantly being shaped by the future.
So, in reality, the present moment is all that we have as time, but that does not mean that there is no past or future, that they are not real – they exist as powerful influences on our lives, powerfully shaping our experience, our thoughts, feelings and actions. To put it in slightly poetic terms, today is tomorrow becoming yesterday. In this regard, there is much we can learn. Yes, we can learn from the past, as is well recognized, but we can also learn form the future, in the sense that, by being clear about where we are trying to get to, what we are doing with our lives, we can better understand what we are doing now and what we need to do – and that will not only put us in a stronger position for creating the future we want, but also enrich our lives now.
For a long time it was believed that, when we experience a major loss, we need to put that behind us and ‘move on’, we need to ‘let go’ so that we can grieve properly. However, it is now recognized that this is not helpful. Trying to artificially disconnect from the past is not likely to feel real, and is therefore not likely to help. The much more helpful idea of ‘continuing bonds’ means that we can continue our relationship with the person we have lost, but recognize that the relationship will now take a different form. The past is still meaningful for us, but we move forward towards the future understanding what has changed, understanding that the present is now different, and so will the future be.
So, the past is something we can learn and benefit from, and in many ways it remains with us. But, we must also look to the future, because that too is constantly guiding our choices, influencing our feelings and shaping our thoughts. The past and the future are not alternatives to the present; they are very much part and parcel of the present, and we will be much worse off if we lose sight of that.