Retrospection is the act of looking back at the past in order to evaluate it. These days I am engaging in a lot of retrospection because I am encountering a lot of issues involving time, which is another way of saying I’m encountering a lot of issues involving change. Over the last ten years, I’ve undergone a lot of changes, involving religion, relationship, lifestyle, and career. In examining retrospection, I’m attempting to answer some important questions:
- How should I feel about my past?
- Can I learn enough from my past to help me make decisions for the future?
- What does my life add up to?
So-- how should I feel about my past? At first glance this seems like a dumb question, but I think we’ll also find that it’s ultimately a dumb question too. It’s initially dumb because it’s probably better just to ask “How do I feel?” rather than seeking to dictate my own emotional responses. And yet, I often find that my instinctual emotional responses rely on selective memory, and so they lack a deeper authenticity-- I either look back nostalgically on the good times, forgetting experiences of emptiness or disconnection, or I look back angrily or regretfully on various struggles and failures, forgetting how they were also experiences of growth.
It turns out to be wise to ask how I should feel, since in doing so I push myself to develop a more complicated sense of self and history. I come to find that some fondly remembered experiences took place in a context of problematic character and relationship issues; I come to find that some experiences I regret laid the foundation for joy I’m experiencing now.
So, to the question “how should I feel about my past” is the answer simply: “complicated”? In some sense yes, but in another sense, look, “complicated” is not a feeling, it’s a state of mixed feelings. And while I see how the good and the bad are always intermingled, “mixed feelings” feels like a cop-out answer to how we should judge our pasts. Nietzsche either clears this up or makes it more complicated, by advising that we adopt the attitude of amor fati, or love of fate, in which we practice acceptance of our lives as a whole, experiencing our future as the realm of freedom, and the past as that of necessity. This is either an amazing paradox or a ridiculous contradiction; I can’t tell. Still, I find myself unable to embrace the past as a whole, and the reason for that brings me to my second question regarding retrospection:
Can I learn enough from my past to help me make decisions for the future? Do you see how this question pulls the rug out from under any attempt to embrace the past as a whole? If we ultimately embrace our various mistakes and missteps, then why bother worrying about future ones? Or rather, contrapositively, if I’m worried about avoiding future mistakes, doesn’t that imply a rejection of past ones? I think the most practical use of retrospection is for the purposes of prospection-- that is, using the past as a lesson for optimally shaping the future. And I think that using the past as a cautionary tale implies certain feelings about the past.
But, moving forward-- can I learn enough from my past to help me make decisions for the future? In mundane matters, the answer is yes-- through retrospection I have remembered to put on the emergency brake before changing a flat tire, to smell milk to see if it’s gone bad instead of tasting it, and to spit out milk when I realize it’s gone bad instead of swallowing it. In weightier matters, I’ve also gained some emotional wisdom for the future from looking back-- for example, don’t drive while angry, don’t send an email while angry, and generally not to do things while angry.
And yet, there are many ways in which the past fails to serve as a model for the future. While very few know his name, everyone’s familiar with Santayana’s quotation “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” Insofar as retrospection keeps us from repeating mistakes, this is true. A less famous quotation by Hegel opposes Santayana, which is: “We learn from history that we do not learn from history.” (This quotation is especially interesting, since Hegel’s philosophy is largely focused on the spiritual progress of humanity through history.) So, what could Hegel mean here? I’ll actually refer again to Nietzsche, who opens the second essay of his Genealogy with the challenge that humans face of becoming “promise-keeping animals.” I believe that we fail to learn from history for the same reason that we fail to keep our promises-- that being, we just don’t know the future. The lessons of yesterday often do not match up to the reality of tomorrow. Within not knowing the future, we sometimes don’t know our future selves. I learn this lesson every time I put something off for later, with the assumption that future Matt will somehow be more motivated than present Matt. We here in the present can make some accurate predictions, but often on the existential level our different temporal selves simply have different priorities. I sometimes call this the grandfather paradox-- not, not the time travel one-- in which, I know that older Matt will have this intense craving for grandchildren, but younger Matt is not in any rush to produce the children that will get that process started in a timely manner.
Do you see how complicated this has become, and how much foolishness is wrapped up in retrospection? I look back at the past, trying to figure out how I should feel, and what I should learn for the future. But, sitting in the present, I have some different priorities than past and future slices of myself, so my attempts at emotional processing and goal-setting have limited success. This is the central paradox of meaning and time, that I want to create a coherent narrative of myself, but my past, present, and future are very, very difficult to unify.
But I do want a coherent narrative, and I want to invest wisely in the present in producing that narrative. Avivah Zornberg tells us, rather obviously but hopefully, that “the present is, in large part, informed by a particular sense of the future,” which I would broaden to say that our experience of the here-and-now is rarely isolated, but rather highly contextual. Zornberg quotes Malcolm Bowie, who says almost the same thing, but in terms of retrospect and (to me) more sadly: “The history of an impassioned individual life carries with it… a history of wished-for states by which that life was impelled.” We don’t just live in the present; we are always living with an eye towards the past and the future. My past is the record of a series of presents, motivated by visions of futures. And yet, the past, present, and future are often worlds apart. Insofar as the future is the realm of the unexpected, the past has little to teach.
In response to my question about how I should feel about the past, my answer was “complicated” or “tentative.” In response to my question about how to use the past to plan for the future, it is once again “tentative.” All of this leads us to the final and horrifyingly large question: “What does my life add up to?”
“What does my life add up to?” At first glance this is a question about the final retrospection, the kind that I expect to have at the end of what I hope will be a long, healthy life.
And immediately, I have to reckon with the fact that the death-bed retrospective is not a privileged perspective. Ok, it’s the most chronologically comprehensive point of retrospection, but with memory loss and geriatric complaints I might have a cloudier view of what was valuable and what was wasteful in my life. Also, I can’t really tell what time will feel like when I’m almost out of it-- with my time all used up, what does it even mean to try to judge how it was used? If part of the value of retrospection is planning for the future, then what exactly is the point of end-of-life retrospection? This may explain why Kohelet, the Biblical book of retrospective, is so full of despair—of course life looks like a waste when there’s nowhere left to take it.
So, the end of my life might not be the optimal moment of adding it all up-- there may be no optimal moment. Especially as a teacher and/or a therapist, professions that have subtle and delayed effects on the world, I’ll likely never have enough data to make a full accounting of the meaning of my life. And who knows what kind of meaning my life will have even after I’m gone. I’ll paraphrase a modern philosopher: “History will ultimately judge [my] decisions… and I’m just not going to be around to see the final verdict. In other words, I’ll be dead.” Wise words on the foolishness of retrospection, by... George W. Bush. I agree with the President-- we are not the appropriate ones to add up our own lives. As Bush might say, I am the decider-- I am not the calculator.
Ok. Phew. I’d like to make this short, but it’s already too long for that. At least, I’d like all of us to look back fondly on this speech, so I need to finish soon, and with something strong and hopeful that you can take away from it.
Retrospection is one piece of a lifelong project of creating one’s life as a narrative, as this narrative is created both by re-telling the past and by planning the future. The problems of retrospection are the problems of meaning in time, which is to say the problems of trying to make a narrative fit your life (or making your life fit a narrative, whichever). Again, I’m indebted to Avivah Zornberg for my major insight on this matter, which is that narratives culminate in closure, in full or final meaning, while life mostly deals in instability, confusion, and error. Narrative wants closure, and most often in life, closure is bullshit. Retrospection comes from a desire to have power over our story, both as the life we live and the image of our life we want to fashion, and the folly of retrospection exposes the limits of that power.
This insight is strong but it’s really not hopeful. The fact is, the questions I’m asking here are very important to me-- I vacillate between desperately wanting an awareness that my life will add up, and resigning myself to the fact that it won’t or that I’ll never know if it did. Both modes feel tragic-- the vain attempt at establishing a stable meaning for oneself, and the nihilism of giving up on stable meaning. I just… I keep living more and more life, and I fear wasting it. I don’t want to waste my life, but I don’t know how to turn my life not into a waste, or at least how to reduce waste, or even which parts I should be regarding as waste. (Looking back at my previous religious commitments, professional paths, lifestyle choices, and relationships,) How do I determine what was a dead-end, what was a detour, and what was a checkpoint? It’s upsetting to look back and regret. It’s upsetting to want so badly to get things right. It’s upsetting to give up the desire for stability of meaning, for control over my story.
So here’s the paradox: I retrospect in order to get a grasp on life, only to find that time slips out of my fingers. It’s a tragic paradox, and I’d like to give you something hopeful in it. Well, if we don’t get stability, and we don’t want nihilism, what are our options?
I think the answer lies in Camus, in his image of Sisyphus which combines absurdity and rebellion. Between stable meaning and nihilism, there is the tentative, the provisional, the commitment to ongoing evaluation, favoring the act of meaning-making even over the possession of that elusive meaning. We can have some insights into our past, present, and future, even if those insights themselves are temporary. Time mocks our desire for control, for stability, and for enduring meaning; we rebel by forging ahead with courage, and looking back with compassion.
I’ll end with my favorite quotation by Kierkegaard: “Life can only be understood backwards, but must be lived forwards.” I love this paradox but, after this whole speech, I’m highly doubting that can life be understood even backwards. I shared this quotation yesterday with a patient, who put a positive spin on it for me—that, whatever we understand about life in retrospect, it must be lived forwards, meaning, we push on anyhow. Thank you.