Learn from the past, but don’t focus on it

I saw the headline this morning, something about a theater shooting, but I didn’t click through. Can I be excused for thinking that the current news story was related to another, older theater shooting? It wasn’t until I noticed “Louisiana” that I realized this wasn’t the Colorado shooting and related to James Holmes’ sentencing.

Theater shootings, school shootings, church shootings—each time, the shock, the police briefings, the media frenzy, the questions and desire—no, demand—for answers that we may never learn.

Or if we learn them, we might be ignoring the lessons lurking within the answers. I’ve read,

“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” –George Santayana

If that’s true, then we do a damn good job of forgetting the past because we have repeated it countless times. Variations, to be sure. But the stories repeat the same basic movements, like a bodybuilder executing reps of a powerlift at the gym.

But there’s a flip side to all this.

One of my favorite radio stations used to have a DJ who specialized in talking about tragedies. It seemed that every day, she had some new tragedy to recount: a kidnapping, a shooting. “I’m sure we’ve all been glued to our televisions as this story unfolds,” she’d say. In some cases, she was right; the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting was a story like that.

But most of the time, it was something that had happened hundreds of miles from me, and while horrifying, I wasn’t going to glue myself to my non-existent television to learn what happened.

945c5f0284e3403f9d0364e883b73862Tell my kids to be careful, yes. Be careful myself, yes. Become paranoid, no. Stop my life to follow news coverage, no. Let this tragedy determine the trajectory of my life, no.

While I think we should remember the past, we also cannot remain mired in it. We need to remember the past and find the lessons that are to be learned from it; that way, we don’t fall into the same destructive behavior patterns and have the same destructive results. But there’s a danger in focusing too much on these past events.

In Bury Your Dead, Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache ruminates,

“For them, the past was as alive as the present. And while forgetting the past might condemn people to repeat it, remembering it too vividly condemned them to never leave.”

This idea takes dramatic form as the series continues. A horrible, violent attack has left Gamache and his second-in-command, Jean Guy Beauvoir, wounded physically and mentally. Several of their agents have died under Gamache’s command.

While Gamache is haunted by the past (and the professional mistakes that led to the deaths), he seeks to understand the events and grapple with them. He finds solace in his wife, friends, resting, and reading calming books. When a graphic video showing the shootings is leaked online, he does not watch it.

9015c56573e24779a84ce3830424cebaIn contrast, Jean-Guy can’t stop watching the video. He watches it every chance he gets, just like he begins abusing pain medication and becomes addicted to the pills. The formerly loyal sidekick turns on his boss and anyone who might actually help him, including the love of his life, and chooses to side with Gamache’s professional enemy, who also supplies him with more addictive pills. He is remembering the shooting too vividly, thanks to the video. And he can’t leave the past. And he suffers as a result.

I’m sure we’ve all known or been like Jean Guy. If the past were a country, he’s not only revisiting it, he’s bought property, built a megamansion on it, and decided to live there and apply for permanent citizenship. If he’s not careful, soon he’s going to be pledging his allegiance to the State of The Past. (Ever been there?)

Perhaps we’ve had people like Gamache point out the destructiveness of our past-dwelling. What do you need to learn from this experience? they ask.

The answers might come quickly or slowly. They might be detailed or general. They might be different for me than they’d be for others in the same situation. (A distant bystander will have different answers than a police investigator, for example, or a politician.)

Sometimes, like now, as I watch the news at a restaurant, the answers are these:

I can’t control other people.

 I can’t guarantee that when I walk into a movie theater, I’ll walk out. I can’t guarantee that when I drop my kids off at school, they’ll come home. I can’t guarantee that a gunman will never kill me or others at church. I can trust that God is in control, even if the worst happens, and that he will be there with me, even if the worst happens. That’s my only guarantee. 

Life is too short to take for granted, but it’s also too short to live in fear.

Those would be my lessons from this tragedy. Now that I know them, I’m free to live in the present. I’m free to love and pray for those more deeply affected by the tragedy without being consumed by their pain. I’m free from the paralysis of fear.   













6 thoughts on “Learn from the past, but don’t focus on it

  1. I love your three lessons, Laura. And the example from the Inspector Gamache book is powerful — how easy it is to let situations like this completely control our lives so that we can’t move forward.


  2. When I hear of these things I confess I tend to think I’m just glad I don’t live in America. I don’t understand the attachment to guns, I just don’t. It’s all so sad and so predictable :-/


  3. I love Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache novels, and I’m eagerly awaiting the next one in a few weeks. Thanks for the reminder not to stay overly focused on the past. It may take some time to process the situation, which I have been known to blow through, but it’s worth it. Thanks!


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