The Past is a Foreign Country. Learning to come home.
Reconciling yourself to pain from the past involves self-acceptance in the present.
It’s not an easy journey.
Artwork by John Britton
‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there’‘
The Go-Between’, L.P. Hartley
I am floating. Five metres below me, the playground. I watch.
A group of boys point at a child standing alone on some stone steps.
Everyone is laughing.
They laugh at him.He laughs at himself.
He is me.
My sympathy is with them — the group — not me.
He deserves pain. If he is treated with contempt, he deserves contempt.
The mob of boys are surely right, for they have what I lack. They have friends, a group, each other. I don’t.
They are successful.
Their success spotlights my failure. Their connection defines my isolation.
Many against One.
We against You.
Insiders against Outsider.
It’s an ancient ritual: severing bonds that link a person to their clan.
Most of us have been on both sides, mobs and victims, bullies and the bullied.
Most of us are still on both sides. When we condemn, sneer, judge, gossip, reject, attack those of whom we disapprove, or with whom we disagree, we break bonds.
When we bring others to our point of view, against those we have attacked, we form a mob.
We All Want to Belong
We are born to be connected, to be in relationship.
‘Evolution shaped us not only to feel bad in isolation, but to feel insecure, as in physically threatened.’‘
Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection’
John T Cacioppo & William Patrick
When the bonds that secure us are broken, we lose essential parts of who we are. Often we blame ourselves.
I want to be with the mob; the mob is defined by its exclusion of me. If I want to belong, I must exclude me too.
We all want to belong, and will pay a high price when we must.
I became unacceptable to me.
When we exclude someone, we disintegrate them.
I was thirteen — an arty, noisy, clever, scruffy, scholarship boy in a sport-obsessed, conformist, snobbish and hypocritically-religious private school. I lived through years of uninterrupted emotional and physical violence. It was a boarding school. Night-time offered no respite.
My father was a teacher there. I’d watch him leaving work to drive back home — a home from which, for the best of intentions, I’d been excluded. I never asked if I could get in the car and go home too. Perhaps, after being sent away, you don’t get to go back home again.
I never told him I’d failed to belong. He was from a working-class background and had spent his life quietly belonging to the middle-class he’d reached. Keeping his head down. My failure would have felt personal to him.
Instinctively, I knew it.
So I stayed quiet and accepted I was unacceptable. A failure. It may not be true, but it was my truth.
I despised myself by being despised, rejected myself and lived my rejection.
I floated away from me.
Excluded, you reject the mob or reject yourself. Or both. Bonds are broken: bonds by which we know and comprehend ourselves.
Exile, banishment, excommunication, bullying, mob-violence, cancelling, erasure. Many names, one intent — the breaking of bonds.
It’s an act of existential violence.
We join mobs with the best of intentions. Full of righteousness, we exclude the unacceptable. We justify our acts by religion, politics, spirituality, ideology, culture, community.
Everyone’s intentions are pure. We all act from good intentions. We act to bond with whichever mob matters to us. Or to withstand the mob. We act to survive.
‘As often as not a particular child is selected by the group to be bullied. In fact the victim is sacrificed, or scapegoated.… the victim performs a specific function, related to the survival needs of the group as a whole.
’‘The Making of Them’: Nick Duffell
My exile lasted three years. I learned to hide, especially from myself.
Unacceptable to those around me, I became unacceptable to me. I wore a mask of indifference, but behind it was a secret, fervent member of the mob which hated me. Like many converts, I was a fanatic.
My intention was good.
My intention was to survive.
Those boys moved on eventually. It is taking me longer to leave the past behind.
Mine is a common enough story.
I claim no great victimhood.
Exclusion is a daily act of violence. We witness it on streets, in schools, in politics. It’s the main currency — and commercial driving force— of Social Media.
For years I denied my damage. This was self-defence. I feared that complaining of ‘bad’ things that happened at a ‘privileged’ school would sound self-pitying. My parents — with faultless intentions — struggled to send me there. My ingratitude was another failure.
‘An ex-boarder who calls himself a boarding school survivor has … shame about seeming to be a victim.
’’The Making of Them’, Nick Duffell
Two years ago I had a heart attack. It showed me I have lived in a perpetual anxiety. I carry damage. Damage from my past, unacknowledged and unhealed, corroding my present.
There must be a healing.
How to heal?
My first step is acceptance.
Acceptance of self, of others, of the world.
The boy I was, the boys who made the mob, the man my father was getting in his car and driving off— I must accept it all.
None of it is easy, but the hardest of all is acceptance of self.
Unconditional self-acceptance sounds so simple. A pastal-coloured Facebook meme. A smile in the mirror and a gentle pat on the back.
What does not kill me makes me stronger…..Self-acceptance is not that easy though. It feels brutally tough at times, tougher than bitterness or regret, less satisfying than outrage, anger or self-pity.
Accept myself, others, the past, present, death, mistakes, failures, cruelty, betrayal and disease. It’s not achieved by smiling ironically at things I find a little awkward to admit. To accept, I must face the very worst I know, acknowledge it’s part of me. I must bear the unbearable.
Self-acceptance is not acknowledging the flaws it’s easy to forgive. Just as compassion is more than being kind to people it’s easy to be kind to, so self-acceptance is not acknowledging the bits of me that make me sad. Self-acceptance is facing my worst self and embracing it. To know, however I messed up, I did my best: my best to survive, to soothe pain, to bond with someone or something that, in that moment, I needed.
It’s easy to love a wide-eyed, fluffy puppy with a tentatively wagging tail. Self-acceptance demands I love the scabby, scared, growling, flea-bitten cur who snaps and cowers in the shadows. That cur who cowers in the shadows of us all.
Acceptance is the start.
That scruffy child, the boys who mocked him, the teachers who stayed silent or sided with the mob, the father who drove away, all did the best they could — though what they did might not have been ‘good’.
I did the best I could, though I did not always do good things.
That’s the reality from which this healing starts.
The things I cannot change, I must accept.
Acceptance means living in reality, not in fantasies of how things should, could or might have been.
Accept reality or go to war with reality?
Reality is stronger than me.
Reality will win.
Acceptance is my reconciliation, my letting go. The past is gone. I can’t go back to ‘put things right’.
Healing must happen in the present.
That scruffy little boy is long gone — buried in an unmarked grave by the anxious, bohemian jazz-loving young man he became. I can’t tell him he’s OK, he’s not to blame. He no longer cares because he no longer exists.
Sometimes I see his ghost in my thoughts or my reactions. I sooth him and love him, but can’t change what he lived through.
I’m still here.
To heal I must accept the past, but act in the present. The only place I can heal, apologise or grow, is now.
The only time I can effect anything, is now.
Like acceptance, being present is about reality. Now is the only reality we have. Everything else is memory, fantasy or possibility.
The Constant Return to Now
My mind spirals away. I am thirteen again. My fear is intense. I turn it into clowning. I make myself ridiculous.
Life is happening now and that boy is dead.
Healing happens now.
My father drives away. I walk from school to the house where I live with fifty other boys. I dread the evening hours that stretch ahead.
Life is now and my father died decades ago.
Healing happens now.
I mess up. I am terrified there will be a mob who’ll gather to exclude and punish me.
Come back. The mob has gone. Life is now, and the shadows of the past live only in my mind.
Healing happens now.
When I return, repeatedly, to the present, the past lives only in memory. That’s where it belongs. Let its boney-fingered grip loosen. Walk away.
Building a Foundation for Growth
Presence is my foundation for growth, health, hope.
Sometimes I forget, the fundamentals of presence are simple.
Not easy, simple.
I can do them now;
Breathe — experience my breath as it flows in and out.
Sit quietly — notice the chatter of my mind and gently ask it to quieten.
Open my senses — listen, look, smell, touch, taste. Reconnect to where I am, right now.
These three actions — breath, mind, senses — return me to now. Now, I can make choices.Now, I can choose the unflinching path of acceptance and generosity.
Now, I can forgive myself and apologise for falling off that path.
Now — right now — I can live inside reality, in all its dense and paradoxical simplicity. I am victim and mob, the one who messed up and the one who suffered, the man who drove away and the child who watched him go.
Knowing this, accepting the echoes of the past are part of now, I can choose. The future will grow from choices made now.
My ultimate healing is to regain power to effect my world.
To rebuild bonds.
Outside my window, as I write, a robin takes a seed from the bird-feeder. It lives with its daily dangers: cats, sparrow-hawks, an approaching snowstorm. It has lived through hard and hungry nights, disease perhaps, cold and fear. Yet it sings for a moment, this moment, then takes another seed and flies away.
In the moment of its song, it makes this world richer, connected and more beautiful.
‘Your true home is in the here and the now.’
Thich Nhat Hanh