Letting Go of the Past

The idea that it’s necessary to let go of the painful past is very big in the self-help world. “It is never too late to have a happy childhood,” we are told, among other encouragements to let go of the bad things in the past and gratefully embrace the many beautiful things about our present lives. As a general principle, letting go, not constantly reliving the hurts we’ve experienced is healthy, essential to living our best lives and to protecting our loved ones. The devil, as always, is in the details of how we actually do this.

Letting go of hurts of the past is a theme I chew on frequently, having a decent amount in the past to let go of. I feel my daily connection to history, for better or worse, and my personal stories, funny and terrible, which support my view of the world. Seeing the value of these memories, I am reluctant to simply let the past go. I feel like there are lessons in these stories, endlessly repeated; learning we need to extract and digest to move forward. It’s important to view the past in its complexity, considering the terrible things beside the inspiring ones. My once-large family was massacred back in 1943, during dark times in Ukraine and Belarus; pruned down to a very small family that lives and prospers today in the USA and in Israel. Both things are equally true.

I think of this theme of letting the past go in personal terms every time I encounter how hard it has always been for me to accept the the loss of a longtime friend. I understand that certain estrangements are inevitable, and we can see them coming most of the time, but also, a world of associations and shared memories are irretrievably lost each time. Each loss of a longtime friend is a little rehearsal for death.

Although I know the reasons for it, it bothers me each time that I could not find a way to reconcile with a couple of old friends and fond acquaintances in recent years. You could say that our lives are the stories we have lived, have told ourselves are true. People come to different conclusions about what is most important in life. Sadly, sharp differences of opinion (accompanied by drifting apart, taking friendship for granted and fading empathy) can prove insurmountable obstacles to a mutually beneficial relationship.

This leads me to once again consider how personal the political actually is, (political views are based entirely on our personal feelings about the world around us), and how political the personal can be, for the same reason. I hope to work through this “letting go” idea concisely today.

There are at least two ways of letting go of things that hurt us, as true in personal life as in political life. We can forgive and forget, using love to move forward without the need to rehash everything that hurt us in detail. This is a kind of Christian forgiveness, turning the other cheek when we are struck, as Jesus, The Prince of Peace, advised his followers to do [1]. Another way to let things go is to separate ourselves from people who hurt us repeatedly. This second way involves making hard decisions about who is accountable for what and what, realistically, is likely to happen going forward if we simply forgive and forget. Once we have done this, it is easier to let go of that troubled part of the past, though, of course, it is not as simple as that.

The difficulty of letting go of strong feelings is most easily seen in the context of physical violence against us, which is often a criminal matter best dealt with by a court of law. If someone beats us to a pulp and then asks us to please let go of our anger against them for their mistake, are we required by any moral power in the universe to agree to this? In the case of violent physical assault, there is an understandable emotional limit to a human ability to “let go of the past,” no matter how compelling a general case there is to be made for the idea.

The advice to let go of the pain and forgive can preempt the idea that you have a right not to be violently assaulted by someone who then tells you to get over it. There is a process you have to go through, once you are victimized, to first live with your rightful feelings and then separate yourself from that feeling of helplessness in the face of torment.

When a MAGA mob ransacked the Capitol recently chanting “Hang Mike Pence! Hang Mike Pence!!!” elected officials went into hiding from rioters calling for the execution of one of Trump’s most loyal sidekicks for the crime of not overturning an election he was powerless to overturn. There were also calls to shoot Nancy Pelosi in the head. During the several hours of rioting (as federal troops were told to “stand down and stand by” as Mr. Trump watched it unfold on TV) NY Representative Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez wound up taking shelter in Katie Porter’s office where they barricaded furniture in front of the door to keep the lynch mob out. Ocasio-Cortez recently revealed that she had been a victim of sexual assault in the past. Imagine how extra “triggering” a shouting mob kicking at your door might be if you had been violently assaulted in the past.

As a general principle we might all agree that nobody should ever be placed in the situation of having to barricade themselves into a room to try to protect themselves from a violent lynch mob. We might all agree to that, I think (when I say “we”, obviously I’m not talking about members of the lynch mob and those very fine people who support the mob’s right to violent anger.)

Here is a seemingly subtle thing that seems irrefutable to me now, coming back to the personal. If someone in your life is unsympathetic to your situation once in a while you can (and should) indeed let it go, overlook it, be generous, write it off to their being preoccupied with their own problems. We can’t all be empathetic all the time. It is different, and a sign of trouble, if the person is repeatedly unsympathetic and also quickly turns to blaming you for any challenging situation you find yourself in. If this happens with any regularity you will find yourself in a destructive cul du sac of contentiously conflicting perspectives. In my experience this self-perpetuating conflict can often be irreconcilable, since each party is certain that they are being mistreated by the other. If you can make no progress toward getting the other person to see the harmfulness of their stance, it is time to hop out of that deadly dead end.

It matters little what the other person’s argument is against your feelings, particularly if the argument is aggressive, angry and unyielding. Once you see that the other person will never yield, won’t concede anything to your expressed feelings … it’s time to go. Someone who is capable of empathy, and self-reflection, and who really cares about you, will find a way around their need to be right, in the interest of making a lasting peace and ensuring a mutual future. Again, true friends are very rare, especially when times are toughest. You should try not to fight about things, most things are not worth it. Once the fight takes on an abusive feeling — time to go.

As in personal life, so it is in politics. We are being told that Trump’s refusal to accept the will of the voters, his insistence that, in spite of bipartisan agreement about the fair election, and all of his lost voter-suppression and voter-fraud lawsuits, he won in a “landslide”, his raging lies about a “stolen election” that led to a rampage that could have resulted in the deaths of dozens (“only five” died directly, two Capitol Police officers took their own lives shortly after– three more dead than BENGHAZI… hmm…) including the executions of Pence, Pelosi and others, is something to “get over”. In the name of unity and healing, you understand.

As in politics, so it is in personal life. If someone beats you up, then asks forgiveness, then beats you up again, then asks forgiveness — what is the proper response? An understandably human response is to mercilessly kick the shit out of him next time he raises his hand to you, if you have the power to do so. Another, much more practical, response is walking away from the person, not letting them within punching and kicking distance. In either scenario, you accept the hard truth that this person who claims to love you is a violently angry person who can’t help taking it out on you when he feels up against it all. In no case is it a healthy response to simply get over it, until it happens next time.

Countless spouses and mates stay in these kinds of abusive relationships, being profusely apologized to by someone who will, in time, beat the shit out of them again. People stay in these kind of abusive relationships for many reasons, mostly related to fear and a feeling of not really deserving any better from their mate. Every person who stays convinces themselves of the same thing: my mate loves me, it’s just understandable human weakness that leads to the abuse. “I would be a monster not to forgive, look at those tears… ”

We can, and should, healthily let go of many things from the past that trouble us. Awareness of abuse isn’t one of them. The only thing to learn to do about abuse is to recognize it when it arises (it is not always as obvious as a fist to the face) and take steps to get far away from the perpetrator when it persists. Being out of harm’s way is the first necessary step to letting it go. The rest, friends, is much trickier, but we will never get to it while still in the cycle of endlessly replenished anger.

[1]

How often this Christian turning of the other cheek is done in reality, and how effective it may be if one manages to do it, are separate questions. For one thing, responding to mistreatment with love presumes the presence of the Divine in the person who struck your cheek.

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