I ran into an older gentleman a few days ago who knew me from my previous time in Portland, 1977-86. “You were that wild guy,” he said. That’s not at all how I remember myself, of course, so why he would have remembered me that way? As our memories become more distant, often enough, we gain perspective on who we are and are becoming and how far we still have to go. “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” So says Danish thinker Soren Kierkegaard.
What a shame. How much easier and less embarrassing it would be the other way around. If only true understanding preceded behavior! In my early twenties, for example, I was convinced of my own infallibility. Whatever I might do, think or say was absolutely correct, because I possessed absolute wisdom. I had little tolerance for people with differing points of view. I knew I was right.
Such rubbish! With today’s better understanding of the whole, what I know best now about my twenties is that I didn’t know much. I can see, understand and repent the arrogance of the past, yet I also know that today is tomorrow’s past. Will I also be embarrassed then by what I am convinced of now? Yes and no, I think. Now I know what a self-righteous fool I was then and still can be. But as time goes on, I become less and less convinced of my own infallibility, so my embarrassment about the immediate past lessens. Instead of thinking myself a fool then through my insights now, I know to expect to see mistakes as I look back. But I have grown in accepting that I am not the perfection I used to think I was. So instead of focusing on my embarrassment and hating who I was then, I can admit that I was wrong a lot sooner, and then focus on how to live now.
It is not that we become less certain of ourselves. It is that we become more humble, living the present while knowing it and the past are only part of life’s journey. We acknowledge that we are still on our way. We accept that we are still becoming our true selves: the image and likeness of God. We reconcile the past are then able more quickly to see our signposts into the future. And I am not sure that I could have known all this in my twenties and saved others and myself from experiencing the pain of who I was then. Probably not. Still, I am sorry, and I move on.