A response to The Harper Review’s winter 2024 proposition, “We should never forget the past.”
An integral part of what sets human beings apart from all the other species on this planet is that we build upon the work and knowledge of our ancestors. Through this process of building up, adding more floors to the metaphorical building of human progress, we progress and thrive. We use phrases like “moving forward” to denote progress and phrases like “look how far we’ve come” when measuring the scale of the progress made. Both phrases indicate a change in position—our new, current position only holds meaning with reference to an old, original position. Our dates, too, reflect a difference in time relative to a reference point. A past which gives us an “original” to compare to our “new” is required for the “new” to hold any meaning. If we forget the past, nothing holds meaning—not who we are right now, not what we are now doing, and not where we’re headed.
Not only is it fundamentally human to understand progress with reference to the past; we also need memory to make sense of our current world. Why do we as animals who need food, water, and shelter to live care so deeply about what others may think of us? Why are we destroying this planet with rampant consumerism and pollution even though our material possessions don’t bring us nearly as much value as the human connections we regularly compromise? Whether we’re looking at evolutionary biology or psychological advancements in the last few centuries, these questions force us to face our past. Even small things are incomprehensible without referring to history. Why do roses hold more meaning for us than tulips or marigolds, and why don’t we gift each other wheat or rice instead of flowers? None of our customs make sense unless we look backwards. The answers to these questions are found in how we got here. As a species both curious about and scared of the unknown, we are driven to understand and make sense of things—and to make sense of it all, we mustn’t forget the past.
Now that we’ve found meaning and understanding in the past, it’s up to us to move forward or be left behind. In moving forward, we will face challenges and questions—some we cannot immediately answer, and some we won’t find the best answers to alone. But we aren’t alone. In fact, thanks to the monotony and redundancy of human existence, someone born before us has likely found themselves in a comparable situation before, and remembering their experiences and lessons can empower us to take the next steps and keep moving forward. While I concede that remembering the past may be painful, it won’t be as painful as repeating the same mistakes and suffering all over again. As we live our lives, we contribute to the collective domain of human history. Only remembering the past may save us from failing. For meaning, for understanding, and for guidance, you should never forget the past.