Are You Trying to Let Go Of the Past? (Don’t!)

by David Livingstone Smith

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

How many times have you heard people advise others to let go of the past? Once you see that these painful, traumatic experiences are over and done, and you stop “holding on” to them, you supposedly achieve “closure” and can “get on with your life.”

If you’re like me, you’ve heard this kind of stuff a lot.

Not recognizing that the past is over and done with is supposed to be bad for your mental health, and a troubling failure to embrace the reality that life is lived in the here-and-now.

In mental health professions, this notion is often taken as gospel. But I think that there’s something terribly wrong with it. I think that trying to let go of your past experiences, however painful they are, is like trying to discard part of your body. If you succeeded, it would diminish you rather than making you more whole. And it’s something that you can’t possibly succeed at doing anyway.

To see why, we need to turn to the branch of philosophy called “metaphysics,” which deals with the most fundamental components of reality. Metaphysicians point out that the world is stocked with particular things — not just inanimate objects, like tables and chairs, but also people. Each particular thing comes into the world at some point in time, persists for a while, and then ceases to be. People come into existence at some point after their conception, live their lives, and then pass away into oblivion.

The period between coming into the world and departing from it is the period of time when a person persists. One of the topics that metaphysicians are interested in, and that they theorize about, is the nature of persistence. They ask what exactly is it for an object — or a person — to persist through time.

Many people think that we travel through time, moving from the past to the future. Looked at in this way, persistence is like driving on a long highway from one place to another, departing before birth and arriving at the destination at the instant of death.

According to this view, the whole of you travels — persists — through time. You undergo many changes before you reach the finish line. You grow, you develop, and you have all sorts of experiences, both good and bad, before you die. These experiences are ephemeral. They exist only fleetingly, in the thin moment of the present. And they cease to exist when they pass, preserved only in memory, if preserved at all.

Philosophers call this picture of persistence endurantism. The idea that the past is dead and gone fits right into the endurantist framework because, for endurantists, past experiences no longer exist. We’ve gone through them and have come out the other side. Life is in the here-and-now, not the there-and-then.

But endurantism isn’t the only game in town. There’s another way to understand persistence that’s called perdurantism. Perdurantism can sound weird, because it’s further removed from common sense assumptions than endurantism is, and it takes a bit more explanation to make clear.

Start by thinking about your own body. Your body is composed of parts. You have hands, feet, head, and the rest, all distributed in space. Now think about your life. Your life is composed of parts too, but they’re not distributed in space like your body parts are. They’re distributed in time. These time-parts never disappear, because all together they make you the person that you are. The two-year-old you, and the twelve-year-old you, and the twenty-year-old you are all still parts of you. It’s important to understand this point properly.

Perdurantists don’t claim that you are the effect of your past experiences. They say something more radical: you just are the totality of these experiences. Think of a brick wall. The wall isn’t an effect of the bricks that make it. Instead, it’s the sum of those bricks. According to perdurantism, a similar relation holds between the sum of your experiences and the person that you are. You are the sum of your temporal parts.

Endurantists say that the whole of you travels down time’s highway, leaving the past behind and heading into the future. But perdurantism presents a very different picture. You don’t travel through time. Instead, you accumulate more and more temporal parts. You are the highway, not the car. Your first temporal part was the moment that you came into existence, and your last one will be the moment before you pass away. None of these disappear. As long as you live, they are there, making you the person that you are.

So, from the perdurantist’s perspective, the idea of letting go of the past is worse than nonsense. Your past is part of you, and will be part of you until you die. Trying to let go of a part of your past, no matter how painful it is, is like trying to amputate your own leg and throw it in the trash. And it’s even more pointless, because it’s possible to get rid of a part of your body, but it’s impossible to get rid of a part of your life.

So, how about taking perdurantism seriously? And instead of trying to convince yourself that the past is over and done, why not work at forming a good relationship with that temporal part of yourself that gives you so much pain? Instead of trying, fruitlessly and hopelessly, to consign your past experiences to the garbage can of history, why not value them, cherish them, and learn from them instead? If perdurantism is right, your past is you. Embrace it.

Philosophy Talk (https://www.philosophytalk.org/) is a nationally syndicated public radio program produced by KALW on behalf of Stanford University.

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