The farther back you look, the farther forward you can see.
I read this quote by Winston Churchill the other day, and then I read it again. The wheels in my as of late, over-worked, stressed-out brain started to swirl . After the second reading, an image of Pastor Dan came to mind. My pastor would probably like this quote. He’s been known to give sermons on the importance of our ancestors and how long-lasting their influence really is upon our lives. I’d wager he’d agree with the idea that if you were aware of how greatly the past influences you, it is more likely that you’d actively try to either imitate, or not, history. In other words, you consciously work toward goals so that your descendants will (or will not) have the same legacy you inherited. Hindsight provides you with a preview of what your children’s lives will include, depending on what you do (or don’t do) right now. The past influences the present and the future.
After thinking of all this within a matter of a few minutes, I re-read the quote a third time: The father back you look, the farther forward you can see. As greatly as I felt I agreed with this idea, there was something in the quote that would not let me go.
As I write this, I am sitting in the car. To one side of me, there is an African American man, about my age, slouched down in the driver’s seat of a white Blazer. He is sitting so low and so leaned back that I have no idea how he can actually see through the windshield to drive. From his windows, there is rap music blaring so loud that I am convinced he has a not–so–secret desire for attention. On the opposite side of my car, out the passenger’s window, a stunningly beautiful woman, the type that has always made me feel rather like a bug, walks at a fast pace toward the entrance of a store. She is talking on a cell phone, naturally. Glancing in my rearview mirror, I see another woman, this one resembling myself more, with a ponytail and jeans, pull a toddler that was screaming bloody murder from the back seat of a blue Toyota. Directly in front of me, filling my windsheild, is a tree. It’s not fully grown, but it’s not a sapling, either. It’s fairly tall and wide and it is being rather dramatically blown by a gusty wind sweeping across all of us. Its leaves sway back and forth, creating a musical “shwoosh”, that I could listen to all day. And behind the tree, across the narrow parking lot, a man rides a lawn mower, keeping the grass surrounding this shopping center manicured. It sound is the sound of summer, a loud hum that beats in my ears. My windows are down, all four of them, allowing me to hear the cacophony of snippets of random conversations of the strangers who have all gathered in this parking lot for one reason or another, a cacophony that makes us the American, Tennessee life.
I am warmer than my body generally enjoys being, but I’m cooled by the gloriously rich breeze that, though indescrible with words, makes me tip my head back to the sky and close my eyes. The multitude of clouds that have paraded across my pale blue sky for the last three weeks offer me shade: I find I am grateful for them today for that, despite knowing that rain is called for again today.
None of this is particularly important—and yet, it is. You see, even ten years ago, I would not have cared about any of it. I didn’t want to plant a garden. I did not want to lay out in the sun, in an attempt to color my ghostly pale skin. I did not care. In my world, there was only three good reasons for being outside: one, it was Fan Fair and I was seated at a ridiculously long line to greet a celebrity who would not recall my face or name two minutes after she signed my picture; two, I was with a child I was mentoring or three, I was atop a racing, dangerously fast horse that could have easily killed me. With those three exceptions, I wanted to be indoors. I wanted to be tucked away in some bay window, with my pen and paper, shut off from the world, unless I was teaching or with someone I cared about.
You see, the honest truth of the matter is, I didn’t even notice, nor care, how beautiful the shadow of the tree is as it lies next to patch of grass glowing with the sun’s light. I would have probably stepped on the small stem currently growing in the middle of my concrete driveway, without ever realizing that I’d just stepped on a bona fide miracle. The noise of the lawn mower and the confusing drone of people talking to other people would have only registered on my radar because of the migraine they precipate. I didn’t know, and didn’t care. My only reasons, and it was, at times, frankly dimly lit, for getting out of bed were writing and the children whose lives I could only hope I was postively impacting. Other than that, I wanted to hide. Indoors, beneath the quiet and dark comfort of my blankets.
I didn’t know it, and it took time and the birth of my daughter for me to realize it, but I was looking forward. By analyzing my past, I was developing concrete life guidelines that I needed to change the hurt into something positive. I was compelled by the spirit of God to volunteer with children, the first time it was through teaching French to 3rd graders when I myself was in the 9th grade; then came Junior Achievement, then Project Affirm, followed by my online advise work, then Big Sisters and CASA, and then the Rape and Sexual Abuse Center in Nashville and RIP. It was slow, and sometimes it was very painful (think training for the Rape and Sexual Abuse Center), but I was learning, step by step, to channel all my past into very positive outlets. I was learning to USE it for something good, to make it worthwhile. And I was learning that I was not a victim, I was an advocate. I was learning that I had something to offer, other than writing, and that was understanding. I understood pain.
I was learning that God had never made a mistake after all.
And, suddenly, when I went to bed at night, I could see a purpose for my life. I could see a point. Smiles were more genuine, laughter easier, memories fuller. Then, my daughter was born, and everything came full circle. I got it. The very negative things I’d believed from my childhood, the things that I was having a really hard time letting go of, couldn’t be true, not if God had really blessed me with the gift of motherhood.
There were things I didn’t have growing up, beautiful childhood experiences that I’d only experienced through my fictional characters, that I wanted my children to remember. The first time I took my daughter’s hand and leaped into a mud puddle, watching as the yucky, muddy, disgusting mud splattered both our clothes and then spent time not caring about it, laughing over it, my heart built a bridge over the pain. Suddenly, I wanted to plant a garden. I wanted to take a paintbrush and paint my whole body because I wanted my daughter to learn to openly and unabasedly express her emotions. Who cared about dirt? Suddenly, it was easier for me to feel the presence of God in church whereas, before, it seemed that I was surrounded by a bunch of people who were unreaslistically happy, who honestly seemed rather absurd to me. Before becoming a mother, my experience with God had been that He gave me really overwhelmingly difficult obstacles in order to teach me, in order to test and prepare my heart for some higher purpose. But when Breathe laughed or played, or snuggled close as I read her a bedtime book, I realized that there was more to God than obstacles. There was more to God and faith than tragedy and learning to be strong: there was actual praise.
By the time Alight was born, and built the second bridge over my past, I saw color in the trees. I was worried over a caterpillar, I was excited over the opportunity to crawl through kid-sized tunnels, and I was able to dance in the rain. From age 18 to age 23, I’d spent examining and discovering the purpose behind my past; I emerged with a list of guidelines for my life, a blueprint for avoiding pain. I learned. And I grew. And then, I looked forward.
I could see more than the next minute. I could see more than the next day. I could see more than the next year. I realized that the Sun is brilliant, and that if I’m hot, it means God’s smile is extra bright. I stopped to remember that if it was raining, that meant a rainbow was right around the corner. I knew that anger created more problems and so learned other ways of expressing frustration. In short, I began to live.
But I don’t know that I would have, if I hadn’t stopped to first examine e painful webs of my past. I don’t know if I would have had I not obeyed God’s voice and volunteered. I don’t know if I would have, had I not realized that life was about choices and that I could choose to allow sadness and pain to dictate it, or I could grow from it in a way that might actually benefit others. I might not have, if I hadn’t reaffirmed my belief in God and diligently worked to maintain an active relationship with Him. If I had just lived for the moment, if I had just lived for the present, then I would not have had a reason to live at all. It’s possible I would have wound up allowing the pain to swallow me, because it would not have had a purpose. It would have been just pain.
Life is about growth and opportunities. Sometimes, in order to see the opportunities, you have to first stop and examine why you’re where you are. You have to pinpoint the places that went right, and the places that went w. And then you have to act, even when you are tired, even when you ache, even when the tears are seemingly endless.
I’ve been accused of clinging to the past. I guess it depends on how you look at it. Yes, I do spend a lot of time there. Some of it is still dreadfully painful. But I don’t do so aimlessly. I do so because I understood that every decision I make today has unforseen consequences for the generations to come. I understand that there is someone always watching me, eager to imitate. And the answers of how to proceed, the blueprint for success, is in determining the right actions, and the key to those answers lay in examining the motives behind my triumphs and the stressors behind my pain. My proof is the last six years of my life: a relatively happy, stable, fear-free chapter that came as a direct result of my analyzing, “clinging to” and learning from the past. My future is bright, the future of my children is bright, and I am able to say that confidently not because I can predict the future, not because nothing bad will ever happen to us, but because I can say with certainty that the actions I make are to produce a specific legacy. How do I know which actions will produce the desired legacy? My past tells me.
The farther back you look, the farther forward you can see.