Why You’ll Never Make Up for Your Past

The long con of redemption.

For most of my life, I’ve been trying to “get back to” an imagined time where life felt like it was at this incredible pinnacle before it all broke apart. At each peak, I felt as though I’d finally “redeemed” my soul. I felt I’d finally “made up for my mistakes” and I could finally move forward. I didn’t know it at the time, but this is incredibly problematic and is actually a pretty terrible idea.

It’s hard to get ahead when you spend your whole life trying to pull even.

The topography of life is pock-marked with peaks, hills, valleys, craters, cliffs and plains. As we meander the landscape, what we do shapes the terrain ahead. Each new phase of the journey adds texture and context to what’s come before, and informs what comes next and where that road leads you. I’ll illustrate this point by block-quoting an old Chinese Proverb, because it’s simple, elegant, and more eloquent than the words I would use to paraphrase it:

A farmer and his son had a beloved stallion who helped the family earn a living. One day, the horse ran away and their neighbors exclaimed, “Your horse ran away, what terrible luck!” The farmer replied, “Time will tell.”
A few days later, the horse returned home, leading a few wild mares back to the farm as well. The neighbors shouted out, “Your horse has returned, and brought several horses home with him. What great luck!” The farmer replied, “Time will tell.”
Later that week, the farmer’s son was trying to break one of the mares and she threw him to the ground, breaking his leg. The villagers cried, “Your son broke his leg, what terrible luck!” The farmer replied, “Time will tell.”
A few weeks later, soldiers from the national army marched through town, recruiting all the able-bodied boys for the army. They did not take the farmer’s son, still recovering from his injury. Friends shouted, “Your boy is spared, what tremendous luck!” To which the farmer replied, “Time will tell.”

Time will tell. Three short yet powerful words when taken together remind us that the waves are not the ocean. Filtered through this lens, redemption is a fixed position in space-time and therefore not an attainable height: The moment you reach it, that moment will pass. Redemption cannot possibly exist when there are perpetually new events to live through and new information to process. No one’s as bad as their worst act and no one’s as great as their best. Change is inevitable but progress is indeterminate.

What you get is a set of moments. Some big, some small, but all pretty equally weighted at the final bell. And you get to use them however you want to. You can live hard or tread lightly, you can raise hell or worship heaven, you can do you or do good, get yours or get lost — or some a la carte combo of all that. Preferably some a la carte combo of all that.

What’s a given is you’re going to mess up. Worse than you ever thought you could and worse than you ever think you could recover from. And in those moments — really in every moment, but especially those moments — you’re going to learn to do things differently, to do things better, to do things that matter and do good by the folks who believe in you. And if you learn, if you work hard, if you take care of yourself and your community and remember to stop, smile and say thanks every now and again, I believe that’s enough to make a damn difference and blow past any arbitrary definition of making up for lost time or past mistakes.

You may not get what you put in, and your hard work may not guarantee success. I don’t believe it’s a given you’ll get everyone on your team or make the world a better place. But you can live every moment a little bit better than the last, become a little bit better than you were before, build up some momentum, some credit, some equity, some respect and — if you’re lucky — some semblance of a legacy to leave to those you love.

Regardless of the bad folks you’ll come across, the bad decisions you’ll make, the bad hands you’ll be dealt or bad things that you’ve done, you get a set of moments from this point forward — nobody knows how many — and you get to make the best of them.

Will that be enough to redeem your soul? Time will tell.

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