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  • Karl Thunemann

Why Won’t the Past Subside into Itself?

No sooner had I resolved to “make friends with death” than I encountered a powerful and persistent impediment: I am too attached to the past to bid it farewell. My past remains a deep and varied mine, its veins constantly extruding surprises. They often stir me to reshape my understanding of myself.

As I read Judith L Lief’s great book, Making Friends with Death, I do see myself in the magnificent passage that starts in Chapter 2 on page 9. I call it a great book because I can. I am not that far into it, but I can see that it is written in readily understandable English, without requiring one to memorize the daunting vocabulary of Tibetan Buddhism. If you have learned these words elsewhere and have tentatively begun to use them, you may still worry that you don’t really understand them. I have this problem, but I do not despair. Before I started reading this book I hunted for some of these Tibetan terms in its index, and they are not to be found. Lief still delivers the goods. Consider this short paragraph near the bottom of page 9:

“Cultivating an awareness of the immediacy of death is a threat to everything we hold dear. It is a threat to our self-image, to our attempt to make our world solid, to our sense of control, and our desire to keep death as far from our life as possible.”

So we maintain our loyalty to the past, oblivious to the fact that it has indeed passed. Maintaining loyalty makes it more difficult to get on with living in the present and making friends with death, By which I do not mean the Grim Reaper. Death is more like an ongoing process than a fearsome entity.

Even as I acknowledge the need to encounter death in the present, I remain a holdout. I need the past. And by that, what do I think the past IS? It holds secrets, but they are not static. I think of a remark by Irvin D. Yalom, the eminent psychiatrist and therapist, in his book Love’s Executioner, that as a beginning therapist “I naively believed that the past was fixed and knowable; that that if I were perspicacious enough, I could discover that first false turn, that fateful trail that has led to a life gone wrong; and I could act on this discovery to set things right again.”

But over the years he realized the therapist’s job was not to join in the “archaeological dig.” Instead, a therapist helps a patient by “being lovingly present with that person; by being trustworthy, interested; and by believing that their joint activity will ultimately be redemptive and healing.” (page 227, paperback edition)

Of course I am not a counselor, but as a student of my inner life I started out thinking of the past as being static. The farther I go, the more I see my past as volatile. Its perceptions change. Its keepers, whoever they are, change their assessment of what matters, and issues are raised haphazardly according to resonance they find in present life. So, even though I have a therapist, I think part of my job with my past is to emulate the compassionate role that Yalom prescribes for the therapist. And I can see now that if I am to be truly compassionate, toward my past, I have to roll with the punches.

But the architecture of my past is annoyingly static. Here are a few factors that have helped make it so. I have twice been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, though it is not there that my inquiries begin. Some years ago I consulted a woman who styled herself a medical intuitive. At our first session, holding my feet in her hands, she said I was very disconnected, that I had five split-off inner children, one for each year from ages 2 through 6. It seemed likely enough—I even responded that I must have another, anchored at age 8. She waved that off, though in a later session she added it to her list.

Later I spent considerable time making lists of traumatic events and anxieties that might have caused these splits. I topped out at 10 or 11, but the process of matching items in column A with those in Column B caused such a muddle I gave it up. In the past year I have identified three sources of trauma that I have nicknamed the Unholy Trinity. I have clear memories of one, and I have written about it. The other two I have pieced together after much speculation, therapy, dreams, odd coincidences, and conversations with two favorite aunts, both of whom have passed into death’s company. I can imagine only that they have found a friend.

Many years ago I did manage to link a series of annual panic attacks to one of these supposed traumas. For years I almost always felt depressed during the month of May. I usually ascribed this to events specific to the then-current May, but one year the feelings of depression lingered long past what I believed was reasonable for the supposed triggering event. I thought, If I have been depressed over THAT, I should be done with it by now. That realization opened the door to speculating that these annual depressions arose from the anniversary of an event spun off by an unnamed member of the Unholy Trinity. I was 5 when the spinoff first occurred. This recognition enabled me to begin experiencing May as less than dreadful.

But I will not write about that particular trauma. I have no memories carrying it forward in a continuous thread, Instead, my “memory” is based on dreams and the input of confidantes. That is not sufficient to bring it to the dais. And if I tried, why shouldn’t listeners cry out, Enough with the TMI! (These three letters are an abbreviation for “too much information,” not “’Three Mile Island,” as I surmised on first encounter. My associations date me!)

So I find myself in an Either/Or conundrum. Must I reject my past and its proven capacity to shed light on long-ago events? Will it be enough simply to ask my new pal, death, to be patient? No, I don’t think so. Haven’t we advanced to the age of Both/And?

Some days when I have just awakened and I am making my way to the toilet, I hear myself let loose a sharp cry of pain. If I stop and take inventory, I sometimes find no physical pain. It seems more like the outcry of one of my inner denizens, protesting conditions of the long-ago. This makes only a partial answer to the question posed in the title of this epistle: “Why won’t the past subside into itself?” It looks to me as if I may be dealing with it for as long as I am trying to make friends with death. But these endeavors are parallel! They are not in opposition to each other!

I think often of the sentiment expressed by Pema Chödrön, an engaging teacher of meditation and the Tibetan way: She says that a chief purpose of meditating is making friends with oneself. I cannot see any conflict in having as many seats at that friendship table as deserve a voice: the present, death, and any specters of the past that may pull up a chair. And strange as it may seem, may the best part of this colloquy arrive at the very moment I breathe my last.


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