Friday Filing: Looking Back, Not Looking Forward

The year is rapidly coming to an end and there have been many ‘retrospectives’ in print, television, and radio as they ‘wind up’ for the summer season. Such activities are usually the culmination of a long process undertaken by ‘experts’ in various fields and usually precede the ubiquitous ‘summer’ versions of some media where for the few short weeks of late December and the month January replays are the offered fare.

Looking back is, naturally enough, something that we do as we come to the end of something. It can be called a review, or a retrospective, or…well many other names, but the reality is that looking back has one primary purpose. The real reason one looks back, hopefully, is in order to determine those things one has done well, and those things one has not done so well, in order to prepare for what comes next. It is a chance to learn some lessons, but in order to avoid the mistakes of the past but also the learn about the things that went right.

So looking back is a good thing – as long as it is primarily designed to take us forward.

There can be a tendency, however, to look back as a means of trying to find a place or time that was ‘better’, a ‘golden age’ during which things were less confused, more secure, more stable. The naturally conservative nature of humankind, by which I mean the tendency of human beings to want to avoid changing things unless absolutely necessary, and then only grudgingly and as little as possible, is something that many people underestimate – or even deny – of themselves. Many people prefer to think of themselves as being able to ‘move with the times’, to adapt to the changing circumstances of the society that surrounds them, and yet such an understanding of themselves can be self-delusional.

When people look back in search of a ‘golden age’, they are effectively searching for something that no longer exists – and maybe didn’t even exist except in some misremembered courner of their minds. When they search for this imaginary ‘better’ time, the real subject of their search is a place of security and safety, a place where change does not press on them, a place where they can simply exist in peace. The motivation can be many things, not the least of which can be a fear of having to face something new, and something that challenges an internal equilibrium.

The reality of life is somewhat different however. The only constant thing in life is the necessity to change, and to change often. Of course, change simply for the sake of change is no something to be embrace; change must be necessary for a more valid reason if it is to be embraced. Change can be thrust upon us by circumstances, by things we choose to care about or by things that we would prefer not to face, but we will have to face the consequences of all of those because ultimately we have no choice other than to embrace them.

Looking back in those circumstances, where change is going to be embraced rather than resisted, is a radically different proposition. The outcome of looking back in such circumstances is not to search for a mythical ‘golden age’ but to look for lessons we have already learnt that can be brought to bear on the current situation in which we find ourselves. The lessons might be positive or negative, supportive or painful; yet whatever the lessons are, they will be helpful in assisting us to move forward into the future.

And this is the benefit of always seeking to look back prior to moving forward. The past is not a place where we can retreat to in order to avoid the necessity of change; it can be, and must be, a place from which we can prepare ourselves to move confidently into the future, embracing the changes that are often beyond our control from a position of insight and wisdom.

We could do worse than embrace the chance, at the end of another year that has been full of changes, than look back for the lessons to be learnt before moving into the new year.