When people ask who inspires me, I often say that my main inspirations are the animals — who can show grace and forgiveness after enduring trauma and abuse. And that’s true. Or I say that my inspiration is you — and everyone else who comes to my work with an open mind and heart. And that’s true, too. But I think people who ask are looking for something more specific. So, I’ll tell you.
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, dictatorship, bigotry, and divisiveness.
[Tweet “When facing dark times, we can be certain we’ve been here before and we’ve been through worse.”]
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 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.
We are not alone. The ghosts of the past — yours, mine, theirs, recent, immediate, ancient — dwell among us and have wisdom to impart. So, yes, strangely, I embrace the fact that avaricious, megalomaniacal, narcissistic people have come before us, because if we disavow who we’ve been, we forget who we are. We. Humans.
[Tweet “If we disavow who we’ve been, we forget who we are.”]
Historians certainly give us the gift of hindsight; sages give us the gift of insight; together they work in harmony. Everyone needs a sage, and for several years now, mine has been Lao Tzu via his ancient text, the Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (Perennial Classics), written around 2,400 years ago. Thousands of years later, his book demonstrates, and our human experience is the same. Our needs, fears, flaws, and foibles remain the same. That doesn’t make me despair; it gives me comfort, it makes me humble (and it also makes me laugh).
For me, no other text or philosophy of living resonates more than the Tao Te Ching, summarized perfectly by poet Stephen Mitchell, the interpreter of my favorite translation:
“A classic manual on the art of living, written in a style of gemlike lucidity, radiant with humor and grace and large-heartedness and deep wisdom: one of the wonders of the world.”
[Tweet “Historians give us the gift of hindsight; sages give us the gift of insight.”]
May you find your sage, engage with the past, absorb, learn, and repeat. It’s true, as 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.”
Here’s to adulthood.