God often tells people in the Bible to build altars in order to remember something great He had done for them, such as leaving Egypt, or sparing Noah and his family. It almost seems habitual in some cases, where the great event takes place and the first response is to build an altar in order to remember it.
This morning I read a quote by Marcus Aurelius, a Roman emperor:
“Each of us lives only now, this brief instant. The rest has already been lived or is impossible to see.”
I thought about it for a long time, sucking all of the wisdom I possibly could out of it. In a way, it helped me to let go of some regrets I have a habit of holding onto. For instance, I was invited to be on the Ellen Degeneres show several years ago. However, the message went to my spam folder and I didn’t find it for two months, and by that time it was too late.
To be honest, it’s hard to forgive in that situation because of how much I think about how many doors it would have opened and what a great story it would have been in and of itself. I blame myself for not looking more carefully for my important messages (now I compulsively check my spam folder daily) and I blame the digital system for filtering that one as spam! Four years later, it still makes me angry.
Regret is possibly the hardest emotion to overcome because as Aurelius said, that moment is locked in place. It is unchangeable. However, upon thinking more about the quote, I don’t think the past is quite as static and immovable as we’d like to think.
For instance, the past is a teacher. No teacher would like to be described as “static and concrete,” and neither should the past. Jordan Peterson, a secular psychologist, likens all of human life to a simulation, much like a video game. The purpose of memory, he says in many of his lectures, is to keep us from making the same mistakes over and over; it lets us protect ourselves and learn how to become stronger.
Isn’t this exactly what God wants His people to remember in the Bible?
Build an altar so you can recall that I am more powerful than Egypt.
Build another so you remember what happens when you go against My word.
God knows we forget things easily and need physical reminders in order to keep His works at the forefront of our minds. As we enter into the Christmas season, my family practices our yearly ritual of remembering. We hang one ornament from each year on our Christmas tree — I have my own box of 28 or so ornaments, and my brother has his 25. Each little object sums up the year it was given: A car for getting our drivers license, or a hammer the year I worked at a hardware store.
We take them in our hands and we hang them on the tree.
There is a physical connection to memory that takes place as we scan back through our short years on earth.
Now if, like Marcus Aurelius and many New Age adherents, we focused solely on the present moment, we would miss out on a wealth of wisdom we could extract from the past, as well as the duty of preparing ourselves well for the future.
The thing we need to come to grips with is any attempt, mental or otherwise, to change the past. I’m still figuring out how to learn from the past without letting it bring me down — either from regret, or from sadness that I’m not back re-living some of my beautiful moments. The alternative trap is to let the future fill us with fear, dread, and worry.
I want to live in the present but bring all of my past, honestly, with me as a dynamic, engaging, and wise teacher.