Saturday 11 June 2022

Mortal life is about learning from experiences... So how should we think of our past behaviour?

If this mortal life is a time in which we need to learn from our experiences; much of this is likely to be retrospective. 

We may fail to learn at the time of experience; but often have further opportunities afterwards, in retrospect, by reflecting on our autobiographical memories. 

There are two common wrong ways of thinking about our past: To assume everything we did was right, or to assume everything we did was wrong

Some people refuse to acknowledge their own sin, error, weakness; and will always rationalize their past behaviour - excusing apparent weakness, error, sin as being necessary, unavoidable, compelled, "not-my-responsibility", a step on the way to something better, or... whatever. 

Such people see their whole life a basically-correct and integrated - therefore they cannot learn from experience. 

Experience is just grist to the mill of self-justification. 

Other people regard their present person as the only good; and their past as merely a sequence of errors that has nothing to do with Me. Here. Now. 

They refuse to acknowledge past errors: "That was not me! I was just a kid! I hadn't discovered God/ hadn't discovered who-I-really-am. I was weak (but not any more) - I was an addict (but have overcome it)... I am a different person now."

For such people, the present moment is all that matters, and they repudiate the past. Clearly they cannot learn from experience. 

To learn from experience requires both taking responsibility for past behaviour and choices, and also evaluating them as good or bad, right or wrong, strong or weak, loving or expedient... 

It means both acknowledging the unity of life (it was and is essentially me), and also the reality of learning, change, development (I really am different). 

Learning from mortal life therefore entails both continuity of existence, and transformation of the individual. 


Francis Berger said...

One of my favorite Nietzsche aphorisms is "“I have done that', says my memory. I cannot have done that—says my pride and remains unshakeable. Finally—memory yields.”

And as you note, even if memory doesn't yield, there's that strong inclination to put distance between our present and past self -- "that wasn't me, or that was me before I realized", etc. I've done this far too many times to count.

Taking responsibility for something in the past is the tough part. On the one hand, you don't want to carry around all your errors and sins like luggage. On the other hand, you have to fight the "natural" inclination to just leave them all in the past and ignore them or disavow them.

A very insightful post. Gave me a great deal to think about, particularly regarding the unity of life and how that relates to transformation.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Frank - Thanks. My impression is that people feel they must choose between the two - false - options, and don't consider they might be a third. But of course that third 'learning' option requires a belief in eternal life, which rules it out for most people.