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[Chalice] The Backward Look [Chalice]

Presented February 21, 2010, by Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

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In my office at QU one of the first things anyone would notice is a sign in beautiful calligraphy because it was made by Carol Nichols several years ago. It is the only philosophical quotation hanging there in my office for everyone to see. It is the quotation from Kierkegaard: "We live forward, but we understand backward."

This quotation refers to that inevitable and inescapable tendency all of us humans have to look back at the past, what I refer to in my title as "the backward look." There are so many ways not only to look back at the past-with fondness, warmth, regret, just for starters-but also so many ways of looking at that tendency to look back at the past, so many ways of interpreting the backward look itself.

Of course the great philosophical tradition that most directly challenges and critiques our human tendency to do the backward look is Buddhism. A couple weeks ago we were really trying to get into the mindset of Buddhism and respond like a Buddhist to the experience of being angry, upset, and offended. We saw how Buddhism comes at our normal human response to this common human experience of being angry, upset and offended in a really different and really very challenging way that's very contrary to the way most of us actually live and act. Buddhism does the same thing with this very human tendency to look back at the past. Buddhist philosophy and meditation practices not only train the mind to focus exclusively and intensely on the present, on what is happening now, but it even denies the very reality of the self that would look back on the past and reassemble it in happiness, nostalgia or regret. This self that does the backward look, argues Buddhism, is an illusion and doesn't really exist. What exists, what is real, is what is happening now, this very minute, and that is exactly where our mind and our energies and our focus should be.

As much as we might be impressed by Buddhism, most of do not live in the Buddhist mental world. Most of us do live in some ways with the past, with memories of the past. We do, occasionally or frequently, the backward look. The great philosophical other or opponent to Buddhism when it comes to the backward look is our friend from the western philosophical and Christian tradition, St. Augustine. Now there are some things St. Augustine contributes to the world of ideas-like sin inherited from Adam-that we may not exactly agree with, but his thinking on the backward look is very valuable.

Did you ever wonder why it is that the human mind works this way, that we can remember things from the past, that we can do the backward look? It could be that the human mind processes time without memory so that once things happen they are simply gone. Augustine is a true philosopher at least in the sense that he begins with wonder at the mind's capacities and at our human ability to recall the past and do the backward look. This is probably Augustine's favorite thing about the mind, that we can recollect what is past, bring it back to ourselves, and think about it. For Augusine, this ability we have to do this is one of God's greatest gifts to us. This great divine gift of our mental ability to do the backward look not only helps us understand ourselves but gives us also a hint of God's eternal life. Our human ability to live and to think beyond the present is a faint mirror of God's eternity in our human conceptuality.

So unlike Buddhism, Augustine does not discourage us from the backward look and even sees a trace of God simply in our ability to do the backward look, to remember, recollect experiences, and think. And what does Augustine see when he does the backward look in his famous Confessions? I know we might expect since this is St. Augustine after all, the father of original sin, that when he looks back he sees all of his sins, all the terrible, horrible things he did, all the things he looks back and punishes himself severely for. Now there is some of that but not as much as you would think. What Augustine sees when he does the backward look is not nearly so much his own rottenness. Mostly what he sees is God's activity, helping him, guiding him, even though he didn't understand it at the time. Mostly what Augustine is confessing is God's activity in his own life. What Augustine sees when he does the backward look is God as an active force in his life.

I wonder how many people today are or can be like St. Augustine. How about us here in this church? When you do the backward look, when you look back at your own life, from the time you were very young up until today, do you understand your past as the scene where God was always actively present and alive even if you didn't know it at the time? What beautiful comfort and consolation to look back at your life and see God's loving and sustaining presence surreptitiously guiding you. Do we receive and feel that comfort and consolation when we do the backward look?

Probably not, and not only because we are skeptical Unitarians but really because we are citizens of the 21st century, and that kind of beautiful and comforting consolation is not what usually happens when we do the backward look. When we modern people do the backward look we see good memories and wonderful experiences and lots of positive things hopefully, but we also see times and things we did wrong, things we messed up. When we do the backward look, we don't see God's loving, guiding hand like St. Augustine. We see ourselves screwing up, making mistakes, sometimes big ones. I know it is kind of fun for everyone right now to jump on Tiger Woods and talk so much about how much he screwed up his life. But Tiger Woods is not the only person who when he looks back at his life, when he does the backward look, he sees his own faults and mistakes, sometimes big ones, things he would like to change, do over, but can't.

The person who understood well this change in our mentality from the days of St. Augustine to our more modern and secular perspective, the person who understood from the inside how this change in mentality affects what happens inside us when we do the backward look, is the great religious philosopher of the 19th century, Soren Kierkegaard. Now Kierkegaard himself was deeply religious and Chrsitian but had real struggles with religious faith, with himself, with life in general. He also understood well that people even in his own day were not really believers in religion or God in any profound way and that people in the future were going to be even less so. Kierkegaard was profoundly concerned with the psychological consequences of people living without belief in God. Kierkegaard knew that most modern people when they do the backward look they don't have St. Augustine's experience. They don't have the beautiful and consoling experience of seeing God actively guiding their lives. Kierkegaard knew that most modern people live without that, and that when they do the backward look they don't see God; they do see wonderful experiences and pleasant memories, but they also see their own mistakes and screw ups, sometimes big ones, and the things they did wrong, would like to do over, but can't.

Kierkegaard himself was very familiar with depression, and he wrote one of the great philosophical and psychological works about depression, called The Sickness Unto Death. Much of what Kierkegaard discusses concerns how people deal with the backward look. Kierkegaard writes a lot about people who look back on their lives and they see their shortcomings, their failures, their screw ups. He talks about the despair of looking back and feeling like a failure, seeing when you didn't get that job or promotion, about that crucial time when you made that huge mistake that cost you so much and affected your whole life. Kierkegaard seemed to know that for modern people who are not very religious the backward look might be much more bitter than beautiful, and Kierkegaard was worried about that, about what that would do to us psychologically. In a famous passage from The Sickness Unto Death he says this bitter backward look, looking back and seeing your mistakes and screw ups, sometimes big ones, is like writing something that you cannot erase and when you try to erase it it shouts back at you: "I will not be erased!" That mistake, or those mistakes, those screw ups, sometimes big ones, they are what happens to you when you do the backward look and they become your understanding of yourself, the way you see yourself, and they will not be erased!

Kierkegaard understood this, and the psychological unhealthiness of it, from the inside. If you know anything about Kierkegaard as a person you probably know that he was engaged to Regine and after a year broke off the engagement, explaining only that God vetoed the idea. This is one of the most famous romances (or non-romances) in the history of modern philosophy. He apparently broke off the engagement because he didn't feel he could tell Regine about himself, perhaps about his depressive side. What is less well known is that Kierkegaard years later decided that he had been wrong in breaking off the engagement. Years later he concluded "If I'd had faith I could have had her." If he'd had faith in her love for him, he could have told her about himself and she would have loved him anyway. If he'd understood this at the time, he would have never broken off the engagement. But at the time he didn't understand that so he broke it off, made that fateful decision that screwed up his whole life and cost him everything in terms of having a normal happy life with a wife and children. That may well have been a huge mistake in Kierkegaard's own life that came back to him whenever he did the backward look, the mistake that said inside of himself "I will not be erased."

Kierkegaard's nearness to us as opposed to St. Augusine has to do with the fact that he understands and feels the bitterness of the backward look, the psychological difficulty of looking back and seeing our own failings and shortcomings and screw ups, sometimes big ones. Kierkegaard is near to us because he thinks of all of this in psychological terms and is very concerned about how people living in a post-religious world will deal with depression. But Kierkegaard no less than Augustine is fundamentally a religious person. What ultimately helped Kierkegaard and enabled him to be psychologically healthy and happy at least by his own account is his own deeply felt religious conviction that God loves imperfection. This is an insight Kierkegaard came to only eventually through his life that enabled him to accept himself and others and to live openly and happily, to enjoy the company of his nieces and nephews and to enjoy everyday things like a walk in the deer park in Copenhagen.

Kierkegaard in the first half of the 19th century brilliantly diagnosed the problem of the bitterness of the backward look, but the religious, even Christian antidote he proposed doesn't really work for a lot of people in the contemporary world. Many would not find Kierkegaard's personal God who loves imperfection any more believeable than Augustine's ever active God. Certainly the most penetrating mind who dared to think the problem of the burden of the backward look entirely without religious consolation was Nietzsche. Nietzsche understood well and dealt at length with the pain of the backward look. He described the fact that we cannot change the past as the will's 'loneliest melancholy." "That which was," writes Nietzsche, is "the name of the stone" we cannot move." Nietzsche is desperately concerned with how we free ourselves from the stone of the past and our own backward look at what we cannot change, and instead of some religious solution he gives us nothing but human will and human action. Nietzsche says we must willfully distort the past and turn "thus it was" into "thus I willed it." Without God and without any religious consolation Nietzsche offers us nothing but the will to power that refuses to be imprisoned by the backward look and willfully changes all that weight and burden and guilt and regret and self loathing into the will's own strength and power. Nietzsche says it is much better and healthier for the self to live out of its own creative power and say the past is what I myself willed it to be than to live swallowed up by remorse and regret. Nietzsche escapes the backward look by defying it and overcoming it through the will's own creative power not only to create a new future but to create a past from which one wants to have sprung rather than the past one actually sprang from.

Nietzsche's radical solution to the problem of the burden of looking back at a past one wants to escape from just illustrates the problem Kierkegaard predicted we secular people of the future would have when we have to live with our regrets and mistakes without any God or any theological consolation. Of course just as Nietzsche leaves the scene Freud arrives with his own completely secular antidote. Freud offers a new and a scientific way to deal with the burden of the past. Now we can use the backward look to analyze ourselves and better understand the forces that shape us and influence us and live in us and cause us to do the stupid things we do in the first place. Freudian discourse enables us to look back at the past we would like to have never had in the first place and find its origins outside of our own actions, in desires, instincts and drives, repressed wishes and experiences buried in our unconscious. Freudian discourse is a purely secular one aimed at bringing relief from the burden of the past, Nietzsche's loneliest melancholy without bringing God or religion into it.

I don't know how you feel about the backward look or how intensely you feel at times Nietzsche's loneliest melancholy. Surely there is a difference in the perspective of someone who is 25 when most of your life is ahead of you and someone much older, like myself and many of us, who can look back at our lives and see, among other things, the mistakes along the way. When I decided to pursue this topic a long time ago I had no idea that Tiger Woods would come along and demonstrate the necessity and the difficulty and the spiritual/psychological struggle of the backward look. But as I said, Tiger Woods is not the only person who has to live with the loneliest melancholy. He has the added burdern of having to do this in front of TV cameras and reporters constantly wanting to know all the sordid details of his past. What he has to do in public many people have to do in public. When we do the backward look and confront the loneliest melancholy, is God language, any version of it, helpful to us? Ot do we opt for purely secular antidotes? Do we adopt a Buddhist approach?

Perhaps now we are entering into an era when we can do Freud one better in terms of helping people with the bitterness of the backward look but without God or religion. Brain research is making great strides in determining exactly where specific memories are stored in the brain. Some believe we are not far from the day when people who have particularly painful memories and are haunted by the bitterness of the backward look can simply choose to delete from their minds the part of the past they wish they could escape from. Perhaps soon we actually will be able to erase that big mistake Kierkegaard writes about, the one that shouts back at us: I will not be erased.

©2010 Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Manning, Rev. Dr. Rob 2010. The Backward Look, /talks/20100221.shtml (accessed July 4, 2020).

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