Changing the Past

by Michael McGinnis

Everyone has a past full of troubles. The older you are, the more you have collected. How can we keep from being buried in a growing tide of memories of unhappiness and misfortune?

Imagine your reaction to a headline like this on the news: "Scientist discovers how to change the past." You might think -- what's past is past and can't be changed -- this doesn't make sense. But it has happened to me, and maybe to you as well.

This story happened when I was in the first years of high school in Nanaimo, B.C. I had done very well in elementary school, but when I moved to a large high school a number of students in my grade eight class turned out to be bullies who decided I was a good target. In many ways that year was a misery. Early in the next school year my family moved to a different town. As my homeroom teacher and I walked down the corridor in the Nanaimo school as I prepared to leave, we encountered the principal. My teacher told the principal that he was sorry to say that I was leaving. His one word reply was, "Good."

I figured that I had just been insulted, and started to hate my former principal. And so it was for several years -- when I looked back at that incident, my feelings were betrayal and hate.

Eventually, my understanding of my life grew. I realized that the principal was well aware of the problems I had been having in school. He knew that by moving to a new school, I would have a chance to make a new beginning elsewhere. And so he said, "Good." because for me it was the best thing that could have happened. I think of that principal now with appreciation and respect.

And so the past changed for me. When I was 15, looking back on that incident in 1966, I felt great hostility. By the time I was 20, I looked back on the same occasion with gratitude.

The past exists because of two things -- a memory to retain events which happened in the past and a state of consciousness to interpret them. A person with no understanding of life has no past. Animals, as well as people, can learn to interpret changes in their environment to their advantage, so both have some sense of the past. The grosbeaks who visit my yard have learned where the feeder is, and where the visiting cat is likely to be. But their interpretation changed with time: at first, the feeder was a place they could always go for food in safety. Then, a couple of weeks ago, Sylvester the cat started visiting, and the birds had to learn new ways. One female didn't, by the evidence of brown feathers on my lawn.

The past has no separate existence -- it exists only because something experienced it. When our understanding changes, our view of the past changes though the past events themselves are still the same. The principal at my high school spoke only one word to me -- that event is fixed. Yet, when the understanding changes, events change in importance. Something that seemed serious long ago fades to insignificance, or changes from being a negative to a positive experience, in the light of better understanding.

My lesson has been to enjoy the lessons of the past without getting caught up in them. The grosbeaks learned from their experiences to be careful using the feeder, but they don't regret the past. Like them, I should be able to learn from my past, so I can transform unhappy past experiences into positive ones. I can change my past experiences from destructive to constructive. Also like the grosbeaks I should be able to use my better understanding not to dwell on the past, but to live my life more fully now. The grosbeaks are having a great time at the feeder!

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