In this episode of the Food for Thought Podcast, I explain how the hindsight of history can give us the insight of sages. (And I include the written essay below.)
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HOW THE PAST CAN GIVE US HOPE FOR THE FUTURE:
When people ask who inspires me, I often say that my main inspirations are the animals. Next, I say people who are on the ground directly rescuing animals. Next, I say…you — and everyone who meets the world with an open mind and heart.
But I would also say that one of the things that inspires me to keep going, especially when times are tough…is the past. Nothing gives me more hope for the future than the past.
When facing the darkest times individually or collectively, one thing we can be certain of is that we’ve been here before and we’ve been through worse. In our collective consciousness or in our individual experience (or both), we’ve been through sadness, disappointment, war, upheaval, conflict, fear, grief, loss, uncertainty, tyranny, bigotry, and divisiveness.
With each age that passes, we gain both wisdom and amnesia.
We seem to learn a little and make some progress until myopia prevails, and then we forget that we’ve been here before. But just a glance at the past reveals the human condition in all its radiant splendor and in its darkest malevolence.
The resilience we possess to endure, weather, and learn from adversity is incredible (and it’s not unique to humans); it’s also something we can experience vicariously. Just knowing someone else has faced the same challenges, the same odds, the same mistakes can give us comfort.
“You are not alone” can be the most healing words. “I have been there, too.”
We are not alone. The ghosts of the past — recent and ancient — dwell among us and have wisdom to impart. So, yes, strangely, I embrace the fact that avaricious, megalomaniacal, tyrannical, narcissistic people have come before us, because if we disavow who we’ve been, we forget who we are. We. Humans.
Historians give us the gift of hindsight; sages give us the gift of insight; together they work in harmony.
When I read the texts of those who are my sages (The Tao Te Ching, Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, Letters from a Stoic by Seneca), thousands of years later, their words demonstrate that our human experience is the same: our needs, our fears, our flaws, and our foibles remain the same.
That doesn’t make me despair; it gives me comfort, it makes me humble (and it also makes me laugh).
Poet and philosopher George Santayana observed that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” but the first part of that maxim is equally true and rarely quoted: “Progress depends on retentiveness. When experience is not retained, infancy is perpetual.”
And so may we look to the past to learn what it has to teach us — so we can grow and grow up. May we look to those who came before us so that we’re better able to look ahead. May we obtain the wisdom of the sages so we can retain the lessons of history.
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