The Past Shall Rise Again

Carol Smaldino
Dec 10, 2019 · 5 min read

The Past Shall Rise Again

You know the adage that we should not “dwell on the past”. There are a host of movements and practices to keep ourselves grounded in the present. However, as it turns out, if we do not dwell on the past when it is crying out to us in its glory and its pain, it will in fact dwell inside of us.

Emotions and emotional baggage are always involved when there is an impasse in communicating productively. In the midst of the stunningly scary political divide we see in our country they are involved as well. However they — emotions — are rarely discussed, and rarely analyzed in anything but paranoid and insulting blame. As it turns out our pasts — our histories, personally and collectively — have an impact on how we become enraged, detached or how we cope with conflict in general.

The past needs to rise in importance so we can understand how it, with those of us on the right or left for one, triggers our deep loyalties, our deep resentments and our deep fears. In some parts of our culture the “past shall rise again” conjures the spirit of the Confederacy, the spirit of the “South shall rise again”. In this use of the phrase, the loyalty is to the past, glorified to seem like we have been robbed of it; with the “right” leader, it becomes a beacon of light that may salvage our pride and our future.

Liberals on the other hand, tend to embrace a commitment to what can (at least so it seems) fix a system they see as broken. They (let’s admit it: we) see the sores and scabs and blights on any modicum of social justice, and social equality. We want an allocation of funds and acknowledgment to put towards the problems that we still see in our ghettoes, jails, streets, and climate conferences where our own leaders deny the issue altogether.

I imagine a beginning discussion here (that I’m imagining as not completely vulgar and demeaning), that goes on each side something like, “Hey you don’t understand me at all. You don’t understand (this is not the liberal here) that while we let tons of immigrants in and while Black people got a deal because they were given preference…all that time we were busting our backs to make a living and make this country the best it could be. You just insult the country and want to bash and bash some more.”

I see the liberal saying, “I can see how you might see things from a different perspective. For me I see the inequalities, and the corruption in government. I see the fact that you think things were great and they never really were. I love my country, too, and I want it to be the best it can be. You’re not the only patriot here.”

We have an impasse right here, but here is where the conversations usually end if they get this far to begin with. People on both sides become more interested in nursing resentments and as relationship specialist Pia Mellody might say, “offending from the victim position”.

Emotions are running us more than we know and it makes us unable to think, sometimes at all. Emotions trump thinking; they always do ( and the President does have the best name for describing this as it turns out.)

Emotions trump thinking and nobody it seems is saying stop the music, and let’s attend to the issues under the issues. We all have a past that have influenced our politics. So I’ll start. I’ll start with myself as being an imaginary guest on an imaginary talk show, called “How I Got Here.”

“As an assimilated Jew (how assimilated in a totally Jewish neighborhood?), I felt sorry for people who weren’t Jewish (hard to believe I know). My parents always voted Democratic though I never knew exactly why. My social justice passions became strongest in my teenage years. I hated and was terrorized by, the threat of nuclear war. Walking around on the campus of Brooklyn College during the Cuban missile crisis was scary in ways it’s hard to translate. It could have been the end of the world, and it felt that way. This was no television episode and nobody was talking; there was nothing light, nothing funny about it.

I was anti war as well but prior I was for disarmament. It got me crazy that nations would build up nuclear arsenals that could kill us all thousands of times over. It took me years (some in therapy, I admit that) to begin to realize that some of the urgency of my fervor for justice, for peace and equality, came from my own past. My parents bickered with intense anger and almost constantly. There were intermittent truces and the uneven rhythms of the fighting might to a more objective eye have seemed predictable and even boring but to me the atmosphere bought a paralyzing fear and chaos when the tension was about to start or had already started.

I wanted peace, also in my home and in my mind, and feeling empowered to write about it and to go on marches and sing-ins, made me feel I could do something about my own feelings of being overwhelmed by irritability, anxiety and sadness. I was vulnerable to wanting heroes to believe in and was fed the mythology of Abraham Lincoln being the greatest man and President who ever lived, as one example. I bought into it and in this case as in many others, missed the complexity, the opportunism in his actions and attitudes. I’ve overlooked the liberal tendency to be arrogant and insensitive to the fears of people on the right who are defensive about what they see as a socialism that will dominate and undermine them.

One addition that comes to mind, is that my parents always loved folk music, something I loved as well. I went to a camp where Woody Guthrie’s wife and children were there and our own patriotism as we sang “This Land is Your Land” was mesmerizing. It was a camp for the arts but also a folk singing one. So it was another place for me to build on my liberal taste buds and sense of belonging and purpose.”

I realize that we need to develop a culture in which there is dignity in admitting our raw and darker sides on our way to a more complex picture of ourselves. Once we know our own flaws and potential for sadism as one example, we can become less inclined to invent our enemies or to want to bring them to their knees.

At the same time, I do realize that it’s important to remember that fighting and hating can be addictive, even if on the surface we lament the lack of civility and the tendency to demonize. Addictive behavior and attitudes can be predictable and hard to shift from. We open ourselves up to uncertainty, to not knowing, to concentrating on what we have to fix within ourselves; we open ourselves up to our neediness and dependency and the real need for support from people who can guide us without manipulating us.

The past — the importance of the past when it is faced and shared and metabolized — shall rise again. For me this phrase includes both hope and the intention to be on a quest to understand ourselves and each other better. The stakes of not doing so are pretty high. And the past, our pasts — and our emotions — are too crucial to ignore. That is if we hope to get past the present collision course we are on.

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