“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” — William Faulkner
I’ve thought about these words from Faulkner in reference to the temporal space between events in his book. The more I think on the quote, the more I realize these words are not only relevant but true. Everything that happened in our past is not dead, and not even in the past. It made us who we are now.
Don’t ever tell yourself that something that happened or something you did didn’t matter. No matter how insignificant others might tell you something is, despite how much your loved ones plead you to move on, perhaps the dwelling and ruminating on some form of shame and guilt you feel is what you need. Everything matters at the end of the day, and it’s up to you to decide for yourself, not anyone else. You or your God are the definers of your journey and life, and although the quote that “definitions belong to the definers, not the defined,” that Toni Morrison once said in Beloved refers to slaves having their definitions defined by white slaveowners, the novel is triumphant. By the end, the roles are reversed: the former slaves became the definers, instead of the defined, of their own story.
And yet we live in contradictions and paradoxes, that although there’s a part of us that dwells and feels, there’s also a part of us that moves on. Toni Morrison also once said, in Song of Solomon, that if “you wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down.” As human beings, we are characters with narrative arcs. Perhaps there’s a part of us that needs to hold onto the stuff that weighs us down and make our peace with the past before we can fly and give it up. There is no surrender and peace unless a prior struggle and conflict preceded it, as any person resisting a relationship in faith has experienced. We must be broken down first before we know what it means to fly.
That is why everything that’s happened made us who we are today. I certainly wouldn’t be where I’m at now not only for my successes, but my failures, for the friends I’ve made for life who will stand by me unconditionally, and also the conditional friends in which my relationships fell apart. Every time something goes horribly wrong and the outcome goes against what is considered “good” and what I planned, I learn a lot more about my shortcomings and failures. I learn more adhering to my Christian faith and Calvinist theology, that I myself am worthless and unjustified, and can’t claim to be better than anyone, because the ways I have wronged people and the world are much worse than the sin I know of anyone else. I am absolutely nothing alone, but by the grace of a higher power in my God, I can affect change and affect the lives of people, to do justice and serve the world in capacities I didn’t think possible. I am not supposed to have learned what it means to surrender control, but I have, and I’ve never felt so much joy.
All of my failures, all of the pain I caused, whether it was my fault or not, whether it was intentional or a complete accident and misunderstanding, contributed to the person I am today, and I can say confidently that I didn’t think I would be here. I’m not supposed to be here. I’m not supposed to have forged as strong of relationships as I have, to have fostered and succumbed to as much vulnerability as I have. I’m not supposed to have worked on a suicide hotline or have been successful doing it. I’m not supposed to have found God, but God defied what I was “supposed” to do. I’m not supposed to be a teacher next year, teaching high school English, and being a person who will become a much better teacher than who I was before everything I went through this year.
I think I’m the luckiest person in the world, that I am everything I am because the past is not over, and it’s not even the past. I haven’t really changed as a person despite the trauma and various pain that I’ve been overwhelmed with this year. No, I’ve grown, and I wouldn’t have it any other way, and no one else could have gone through the same and developed to who I am.
I believe that there is a plan and journey for everyone. Some people will have destinations they find more favorable. Some may not, but that’s fine, and that’s okay. Yes, we will feel the anxieties and fears with how much we have to lose, with how much we have at stake. But this year and throughout college, I have experienced the joy that comes with having absolutely nothing to lose, to give up to God because as much as I want to believe, God just showed me I had no other choice.
So no, my past is not ever dead, but a “rememory” of the past traumas that are colliding with my present circumstances. All of that made me who I am, and the definition of my life belongs to myself, the definer, and not the outsiders who misunderstand me oh so much that have tried to be the definers of my story, and that is what your story should be, as the definer, too.
Originally published at https://www.theodysseyonline.com on May 14, 2019.