A little piece I wrote back in 2010 – Sanitation? … or sanitization? – has been receiving a bit of attention from blog-readers in recent times, so I took another look at it myself … and it seems quite an appropriate topic for the season of Lent (which began last Wednesday (05 March).
Responding to a comment on the original post, I explained that “The between-the-lines inferences and implications of my post [had] to do, on the one hand, with destroying incriminating evidence, hiding my inner life … and, on the other hand, with holding on to mementos and souvenirs, and maintaining a record of things I [wanted] to remember.”
A bit cryptic – to say the least.
In the original post, I quoted something from A. Whitney Brown: “The past actually happened but history is only what someone wrote down.” (A. Whitney Brown, in The Big Picture)
What I didn’t make clear, in that 2010 post, is that what happened in the past is still in the past – nothing of the event itself is actually happening now. In effect, all that’s happening now is that a voice in my head is reading aloud what got written down in the past, and maybe reminding me about the wrong I have done and the good I have not done … and maybe I’m cringing, feeling guilty.
An act of contrition is one thing; getting rid of the rubbish is another. But this is not a lenten sermon, so back to the crux of the matter: “Giving up the past”.
In my experience, the inclination to clutter is often the outcome of either of two impulses: at one extreme is the Proustian urge to document everything (see note 1 below); at the other end of the scale, I hang on to things I cannot find the inner resources to attend to, process, or deal with.
Of late, I’ve been managing pretty much all the day-to-day chores and commitments, but there is a persistent residue that is harder to shift. A high percentage of that stuff still clutters my living-space; the remainder clutters my mind and my heart. The physical clutter is the manifestation of inner states, and its persistence is invariably anchored in the past.
The prophet Isaiah – who, by the way, had some worthwhile things to say about fasting and repentance (see Note 2 below) – said: “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past.” (Isaiah 43:18, NIV). Whilst digging around on the interweb, I found a nice paraphrase: “When your past calls, let it go to voice-mail. It has nothing new to say.”
So I have plenty of work to do – giving up my past, and putting out the psychological and emotional trash.
1/ Proust, who claims to have no memory, keeps track of everything. His letters (there are several thousand) provide a running inventory of his bodily functions – letters to his mother providing an update of his respiratory condition, letters to his doctor listing the details of his menu, little notes handed to his housekeeper every morning reporting the number of times he coughed the night before. (Rebecca Comay, in Proust’s Remains)
2/ The symbolism of the familiar Ash Wednesday ritual – a cross smeared on the forehead using the ashes of palms gathered up after the Palm Sunday procession – connects back to repentance practices in Old Testament times – see Isaiah 58, for example.