That Blast from the Past
It's June again. I have been sitting through the tightly scripted exercise called graduation, watching a drama that plays throughout America during this long light time of year. Act 1: Pomp and Circumstance. Act 2: Robed celebrities in tasseled mortarboard hats spout sanctimonious words of sweet promise about the future, that unknown void the graduates seated in front of them are about to be shoved.into. The future is all yours. Grab'n'Go. Have it your way. Act 3: Graduates get diplomas, toss tassels and are tossed into the world... oops, I mean the future.
This year I sat reflecting on my own post graduation life and how I've learned to live with it. Of course I remember absolutely nothing about the mortarboard moments, least of all what any speakers had to tell me. But since tradition dies hard, I'm willing to bet they droned on about how shiny and bright the future is and how tightly I should embrace it. Yeh, right, I thought as I looked back. Good luck with that!
The canned blah blah blah made me wonder why we still think the future is so imperative, influential and inviting we need to lavish praise on it at delicate moments like these. A quote from a different kind of midsummer night came to mind: "What fools these mortals be!" Rinpoches regularly warn us never to think about the future because there is no there there. it hasn't happened yet. Who can speak with certainty about it? (Certainly not pollsters or pundits.) Whatever anybody says, they are just another fortune teller making it up. They are just braiding strands of imagination into a tale.
We need to give graduates news they can actually use. How much more beneficial it would be if celebs with microphone and mortarboard talked about the past. You know what George Santayana said. I say: see in the endless headlines reiterating what a holy mess we're making of this planet, see how it's mainly thanks to all those people who just can't get passed the past. You have to learn how to do that.
I'm not talking only about all the fossil fuel profiteers denying climate change and denying all of us a future on this planet. That same old same old yet to be disrupted. I'm referring to all those angry people in the Middle East hellbent on recreating some imagined past far more powerful and glorious than their reality right now. ISIL wants the 8th C Caliphate, Orthodox Jews want BC Jerusalem, Saudi Arabians want 18th C fundamentalist Muslim extremism. The Taliban wants the 19th C before electronics and women's liberation, the Serbs want the 13C before the Ottomans invaded and converted some of their neighbors to Islam. These folks are so obsessed looking backwards over their shoulder, they can't see where they are going. They constantly crash into each another, provoking road rage and fist fights writ large as war.
On this side of the pond we have the cohort of Antonin Scalia fond of sitting in modern clothes interpreting the Constitution solely in terms of the powdered wigs and cod pieces of 1790. We have Quebecois with license plates that proclaim: "Je me souviens!" although after 46 years of seeing them, beats me what they're so dead set on remembering? How they killed the native tribes? The few months the French controlled all of Eastern Canada? What is there to remember?
We have fundamentalist Christians determined to use modern technology to impose sharia style ancient Bible law on America, starting with the declaration that homosexuality is an abomination. We have all those Trumpeteers desperately dragging this country back to 1860 when white Christian men could lord themselves over every other being on the continent because a future without their hegemony is way too scary. That's what got Nazis going in defeated postwar Germany: resentment of changing reality, particularly diminished masculinity. It's the same thing when gray haired old guys try a makeover with young trophy wives. Everybody is crying over spilled milk. They want to go back to that particular past when they were in charge, in control instead of out of it. You don't have to wonder why the Buddha listed impermanence as the number one cause of suffering.
Fixation on the past turns out to be bonanza for our vocabulary. Look at all the words-- how unflattering they are yet how familiar: vindictive, vengeful, antagonistic, retribution, retaliation, animus, vendetta, revenge, enmity, vengeance, avenger, feud, grudge, resentment. Graduates: do you want these words attached to you? They describe eternal ping pong between past and present, a back and forth that is nothing more than continual jockeying to get even. An eye for an eye. But as Rinpoche likes to warn, there can never be even because the last party assailed will inevitably become the next assailant and strike back. It goes on and on without end until everybody has no eyes, or ayes. The odds for ever getting even are totally against you, so fuhgetaboutit.
And here's where we find a few sunny words for our fixation with the past: pardon, redress and forgiveness, with its sibling synonyms compassion, mercy and reprieve. Also its reminder, see the word in its center, to give. By the inviolable law of Karma, what you get as a future totally 100% depends on how much give you give the past. That's what there is to learn.
Graduates, you need to embrace the past. You need right now to be like Milarepa in his cave. First he tries to shoo away the demons that haunted it, but naturally they bounce right back. So he tries to viciously scare them away but they scare him by returning undaunted. So in desperation, he embraces them. They dance and melt away.
Take it from Lily Tomlin: "Forgiveness is giving up all hope of having a better past." If you can do this, I guarantee you will have a really good shot at that bright future all those speakers promise you.
~Sandy Garson "Wordsmithing to attest how the Dharma saved me from myself!"
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