Living with the past

Last night I had the pleasure of meeting Andrea Tarnowski, a professor of medieval French literature and a some-time public writer. I am at a conference all day today (on medieval French things), so I’ll just offer you her thoughtful piece on how we engage with the past, from Huffington Post.

Forging a resolution — on New Year’s Day or any other — requires knowing history, understanding context, and keeping both close. But our favorite phrases of the moment — “I’m moving on” and “I’m done” — suggest we haven’t learned that lesson.

We use these ubiquitous expressions as stand-alone nuggets of intent. Embroiled in difficulties at work that require time and attention to sort out? Declare “I’m moving on.” Overwhelmed by tangled emotions in your love life? Just move on! Any problem or conflict will resolve itself, we think, if only we apply the magic moving-on formula. Even more dismissive and less engaged is the close-faced announcement “I’m done.” “I’m done” creates a void. It cares for nothing but itself.

 She then moves through some of the ways this attitude operates in our culture, suggesting its limitations, interrogating language – closure, done, and so forth, before finishing.

To be sure, the cultural horizon has room for every attitude and its opposite. To all the language that values motion, we can oppose two other expressions currently in vogue: “We are where we are,” and its close cousin, “It is what it is.” Both evoke stasis, or at least pause; you might think they invited reflection on a challenge, or assessment of a difficulty. Not so. They are circular expressions, which, like “I’m done,” point to nothing beyond themselves. They are lazy. Like “moving on,” they allow those who use them to skirt discussion. They foreclose dialogue or participation. They recall Gertrude Stein’s more poetic “a rose is a rose is a rose,” but lead listeners to conclude about the speaker that, as Stein also once said, “there’s no there there.”

For the new year, let’s recognize what is there, and take it with us into 2013. Let detachment become engagement, and dispersion meet focus. Let surface skimming give way to exploration, and the urge to dismiss be replaced by the will to persevere. Perception and memory bring us to a sense of fullness; “moving on” maintains us in a blank. Our resolutions won’t definitively resolve things, and we will never, in fact, be done — but neither should we desire to be. We can do better than that.

Happy weekend, and let’s do better than that!

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