Rearview Mirrors

“The things that matter are those that lie ahead – rocks, hurricanes, pirates. Behind there is only a wake which rapidly becomes indistinguishable from the rest of the limitless sea.”

Mark Haddon, The Porpoise

“He dislikes all reunions and is a reluctant attendee of this, his fiftieth high school reunion.  His apathy for the weekend’s events causes him to consider anew his dislike of living life in rear view mirrors.  In his experience, they reflect only misperceived echoes distorted by the passage of time as if a mirage seen through the heat of an August Valley noon.  But Derek is aware that not all reflections seen in rear view mirrors are of times past: some are self-images wrought according to personal judgments composed of equal parts experience, amnesia, and imagination, self-images whose content is not entirely factual due to having been honed to a fine, thin edge by means of refining repetition uttered over the long years.  He is also aware that this form of amnesia is a temporary state of forgetfulness subject to the prodding and poking of others which could well awaken the beast of accurate remembrance.  Memories can always be trumped by the sudden recollection of inconvenient truths or unexpected falsehoods.”

Stephen Ellis. The Leaves Are Full of Children

Physical rearview mirrors have a valid place in society – on vehicles, equipment, and other mobile mechanical devices.  Backing them up without the use, or the inclination to use, a physical rear view mirror is hazardous. The use of mental rearview mirrors is also hazardous, as they are susceptible to distortion due to a myriad of reasons. These mental distortions, being inherently untrustworthy, are akin to opioids – capable of much more harm than benefit if not used with careful, thoughtful caution.

One must always be wary of memory, given its ineluctable capacity to deceive and the fact that harmful events and occasions are first among its lodestars. Visiting any harmful lodestar on a single occasion will likely cause secondary harm and doing so with any frequency may well engender an enduring sense of victimhood.  And perennially viewing life through the rancid lens of victimhood is a sure way to blunt the challenge of opportunity, thereby ruining the joy of being.

Too much visitation of the past may also engender an unnecessary and needless sense of loss.  Humanity is much too prone to consider options untaken. and is perhaps the only species to care about them at all.  The rest of the animal kingdom is too stoic to care.  Why humanity is so persistent in this regard is a mystery to me, as doing so is a complete waste of time in the face of the intractable future.  Why not celebrate one’s past decisions instead of lamenting what can no longer be?  Remember well the wise words of Robert Frost:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth.

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

And at least so far, all roads chosen by humanity lead, in the end, to the same, exact conclusion.

Bemoaning what cannot be is to wallow in self-pity, and nothing is less attractive or more personally devastating than doing so.  If the wallowing goes on too long, eventually all your friends, even the most stalwart, will desert you since self-pity is an unattractive whirlpool of vanity from which there is little chance of escape.  In my limited experience of swimming in such waters, the only real possibility of escape is to jam a log into the whirlpool’s eye, but to be able to do so requires a sense of abiding self-worth and resolute resolve that true depressives have long since lost. And the longer one remains in the whirlpool, the less self-worth and the less resolve one possesses. 

It is no wonder then that the rest of the animal kingdom has embraced stoicism; it’s much more consistent with the reality of our shared universe.  

That is not to say that revisiting the past hasn’t any utility.  For example, in my case I find such visits useful for:

  1. Learning lessons from past events, especially from errors I have personally committed;
  2. Honoring, at all appropriate times, those who are heroes in their own right or who have played a significant, positive role in my life;
  3. Searching for good music; or,
  4. Searching for good books to read or collect.

Make your own list of good reasons to visit the past.  These are mine and I am sticking to them with all the fortitude I possess.  Otherwise, I continue to avoid the past.  I have no wish for it to overtake me as I am having too much fun in the present avoiding as many of life’s shoals as I can.

About Gavin Stevens

Humptulips County is the wholly fictional on-line residence of Stephen Ellis, a would-be writer, an avid fan of William Faulkner and his Yoknapatawpha County, and a retired lawyer.
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