Last weekend, I went to a bar to hear a phenomenal blues musician named Dylan Doyle. As it happens, I went to college with Dylan’s father, so the event became a mini-reunion of college friends. I hadn’t seen any of these friends for thirty years, a fact that once would have filled me with dread.
For much of my life, I carried a memory of the past that was highly selective and very tenacious. It included all of my embarrassing moments, the times I behaved badly, the ways I hurt people, and every instance in which I completely misread the situation. Sure I remembered the good times, but those memories focused on the other people involved – I was clear about who they seemed to be and completely uncertain of who I had been. This lopsided habit of memory led me to avoid reunions with high school or college friends because I was always tongue-tied in the face of the strong possibility that I had been insensitive, lacking in self-awareness, and immature “back in the day”.
Then, a few years ago I had a realization: of course I was insensitive, lacking in self-awareness and immature. Duh – late adolescence is known for these qualities. After a whole career spent working with college students I finally thought to apply what I knew about them to myself at that age: college students can be wonderful and energetic, on fire with hope and promise AND they can be arrogant jerks. All rolled up in one fresh-faced human package. Furthermore, it occurred to me that my college friends had their less-than-attractive moments as well. I had been forgiving of these, or overlooked them, or had been so self-focused I’d missed them altogether. The end result being that I had loved them anyway. And perhaps (I could finally accept) they had loved imperfect me as well.
These realizations have led me to reconsider my habit of holding on to the past the way an abusive school teacher once held a paddle – always ready to use it “instructively”. I can’t change the past: who I was or how I behaved at any given moment remains what it was. But there is limited learning that comes from beating myself up with that moment – whether twenty years or twenty minutes ago. Now I try to learn what I can from daily reflection, then let go. Forgiving the past – which is really forgiving myself for my past – allows me greater freedom to act in my life today; I am more open and adventurous, less fearful.
As a result, I’ve been able to enjoy a number of reunions in recent years. Mostly, they’ve been lovely. Some have been one time get-togethers, others have led to rekindled, active friendships. I’ve noticed that the ones that haven’t gone as well have included a component of holding on to the past – one or both of us have failed to reach a place of forgiveness, or we are yearning for something that the other represented to us in the past. These troubled reunions have cemented my belief in the importance of forgiving the past – and have served as a map to the spots in my own heart where there is resistance to it.
Which brings me back to last weekend. What fun it was to gather with these old friends! I rediscovered what attracted me to them all those years ago: they are smart and funny, thoughtful and talented, easy to be with. Once we forgive the past, reunions don’t have to be about the past, they can be focused on the present. I was able to enjoy the moment we were having – basking in the amazing musicianship of Dylan Doyle and the unencumbered pleasure of good company.