Honor and the past
This might be the most ridiculous article to which I’ve ever taken the time to respond. Seriously, I keep pausing and deleting, as though I was about to draw a larger lesson from an article I read in TV Guide. But this guy is a bestselling author, and as he boasts in his bio, he is a “success coach to more than 100,000 people and leader of more than 100 business motivation seminars per year. He speaks to dozens of major corporations annually and has served as head coach to hundreds of top executives over the past 20 years.” He’s also the author of several intriguingly-titled blog posts such as “Are you addicted to drama?” and “Why do we care what others think?” (well, because we’re not all sociopaths, Tom). But it was yesterday’s post that for some still-unknown reason I bothered to read and couldn’t resist commenting on: “Are you addicted to the past?”
Alright, my reasons for reading it weren’t all that mysterious. I’ve always been drawn to the past. My attachment to the past is both emotional and rational. I honestly believe that when the pros and cons are appropriately balanced, most – but obviously not all – things about the past were better than the present. Obviously that point is debatable for a number of reasons, not least of which is that it is entirely dependent on what point of the past I’m using as my comparison, or what spot of the globe. But forgive the generalization for the moment. Usually less debatable is my belief that it is not possible to build a decent future without drawing on lessons from the past and encouraging continuity with the past – which obviously requires believing that the past actually existed, a belief apparently not shared by Mr. Ferry who claims that “the past is nothing more than a story we tell ourselves.”
This belief in the possibility of personal reinvention is what extends the relevance of this particular post by a self-help author/motivational speaker into something worth the comment. Ferry is certainly not alone in his argument that the past is nothing more than an obstacle to overcome on an individual’s way to realizing his or her full potential. Nothing is reasonably owed to the past, and there is no actual obligation to tend to it. Any argument against that belief is an assault on freedom itself or on the self-made American ideal.
Ferry illustrates this point of view perfectly when he classifies people who are “unable to shake free from a sense of obligation to parents or friends who are holding them back” as victims of this addiction. He adds, “Maybe it’s the lingering shame or guilt of something that happened in the past. Whatever it is, if you’re living with the addiction to the past, it is absolutely holding you back from living your very best life.”
Family, friends, shame, guilt… all are simply dead weight holding us back from success and personal happiness. None hold any legitimate claim on what we do in the present or the future. We’re accountable to no one beyond ourselves, and perhaps to those around us who presently add to our happiness.
Of course, the other way to look at it is that individuals often should be willing to forego a more obvious path to happiness to honor an obligation, whether an obligation for which they are directly responsible (such as a child) or an obligation that is a matter of circumstance (such as taking care of a sick parent or taking over a family business). Both allow the past to dictate the future. Ferry views that as irrational and downright dysfunctional; I see it as honorable.