How long does the past live?
The past is never dead. It’s not even past. — William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun
I came of age in the time of lava lamps and mood rings, sit-ins and tie-dye shirts when you actually had to do the tie-dying at home. Articles about the Generation Gap appeared in every newspaper and magazine, at a time when people still read newspapers.
While finding my footing in this social, political, and cultural melange, I may or may not have done a few things that were ill-advised, ill-considered or illegal. Those were wild times, and finding the middle of the road sometimes involved ricocheting between the gutters. Maybe I made some stupid choices, or maybe that’s just how they seem to me now, perceived through the haze of memory and the distance of decades.
It’s possible there are a few episodes from my past that are better forgotten. Unlike anyone born into the digital era, I have the luxury of doing just that. Nobody who Googles my name will come up with anything prior to my adulthood, by which time I at least had the sense not to do or say anything damaging to my reputation or professional prospects.
If my college friends and I found our way into a raucous party, its aftermath existed only as mild regrets or hangovers. It didn’t leave an ineradicable scar of images and captions on Instagram; nobody tweeted the evidence of our lapses of judgment.
That more than anything else may be what most distinguishes people my age from Millenials or later generations: our pasts are allowed to fade away.
Even if my cohort did make the news, the physical paper-and-ink nature of that media made our fame or notoriety ephemeral. Unless we did something that made the headlines for weeks on end, our sins or achievements would be wadded up and tossed out with the trash or used to line a birdcage. Someone would have to make a concerted effort involving microfiche to get the dirt on us.
For my children and for the generations to follow, the assurance that the past is over is like the climate; something that can no longer be counted on. A click of a keyboard or a swipe across a screen can churn up a raw, disjointed collection of info bits, factoids, and context-free images attached to just about anyone.
Given that the algorithms that collect data are designed by humans, with their innate negativity biases, the effect is predisposed to be embarrassing at best and ruinous at worst. Maybe I’m wistful when I regard the smooth skin and supple limbs of younger people, but I don’t envy the zombie nature of their pasts. Everything they do in public is vulnerable to scrutiny and judgment, which in the anonymous world of social media trolls is so often shrill and hostile.
I recently attended a memorial service for a man who had lived a long life. Some of that life was troubled, and some of it was filled with generosity and extraordinary kindness. The gathering was full of people who the deceased had helped or championed, who had shared hard work and glorious times with him.
This was a man who had survived an abusive father, poverty, and service in the Korean War. He was also a man who, while a teenager, climbed into his car after drinking far too much and roared off into the night. The man on the motorcycle he hit was killed instantly.
The topic didn’t come up at the memorial. The deceased had done time in prison and had emerged to live a useful and redemptive life. There was nothing he could do to make up for the life he had taken but to live the life he was given as best he could and to somehow find peace with the past.
I wonder if he would have been given that opportunity if he were younger.
The European Union and Argentina have in recent years put into practice the concept of the “right to be forgotten.” It’s a compelling idea. Coming to terms with our past is part of living a human life. We all have to countenance our deeds, good and bad, to make sense of them. If we’ve caused injury, we must do what we can to make amends. But once that’s done, shouldn’t the past be consigned to a distant backwater?
If we’re never allowed to outlive our pasts, how do we rise above them?