It was in Slaughterhouse Five, I think, that Kurt Vonnegut urged the absolute necessity of forgetting the bad stuff in our lives and focusing on the good stuff. Doing so was, he insisted, a survival mechanism, a way of protecting oneself against irredeemable heartache and residual pain, and making it possible to enjoy even the simplest pleasures. This has been a struggle I have waged for most of my life, for I have an unconquerable tendency to remember all the bad things that have happened to me, while forgetting most of the good ones. Hurts, insults, losses I have suffered, stupid mistakes I have made, opportunities I missed even long ago, are all as present to my mind as yesterday’s lunch, and assert themselves with stinging ease and velocity if I allow my mind to wander even for a moment. The good things which have happened, my successes, loves, achievements, works I have created, commendations I have received, pale in comparison to the vivid recollection of sufferings long past. For they are never really past, since I keep allowing them to bubble up from the tar pits of even my most distant memories into my current consciousness.
Now you will say that I am oversensitive, and that is doubtless true. Being serious by nature, I have had a lifelong tendency to take everything seriously, including many slights, slurs, stupidities, and cupidities which I ought to have ignored. And now the problem is exacerbated by the very modest level of notoriety I have achieved concurrent with the uncontrolled mitosis of social media platforms. One will never know just how many pathetic lunatics, how many mean, petty, venomous, bloody-minded people there are in our society until one has started a website or published a book or run for public office, or in any other fashion raised his head above the herd. For the moment you do so in our society now, someone will try to cut it off.
Someone whose life has not panned out as he wished, someone who, in prior eras would have been consigned to yelling at cars on street corners or cursing at the TV or muttering in a stupor to a barfly, now has an infinite variety of public platforms from which to vent his wrath, often in the most scurrilous terms, at perfect strangers whose lives have turned out better than his. These are the hollow driftwood of society, thrown up by tides of life onto lonely beaches where they bake in the remorseless sunlight of regret. They are despicable trolls who, in ages past, were consigned to mildewed shadows beneath the bridges of our culture, but who now can find themselves in the spotlight alongside the best that our culture has to offer. And the only way such people have to retrieve some modicum of their shredded self-respect is through trying to strip others of theirs.
I used to accept invitations to give interviews, and to speak at seminars and festivals, and I once accepted comments on this blog. And though most people have been gracious, I no longer do these things, for I find that, no matter how benign the subject, no matter how sincere my observations, the roaches of social media will come scurrying out of the woodwork which they inhabit to take their putrid potshots. I know, of course, that by making myself scarcer, I am playing into their hands; but the fact remains that I have not yet mastered Vonnegut’s life-skill of closing my eyes to the bad stuff and focusing on the good. That is my own fault; another defect which I have yet to correct.
Other people, people whom I know, have managed to harden themselves to such vituperation, and I admire them for it and have endeavored to emulate their insouciance. They just don’t care, they ignore the venom, they laugh it off. But despite decades of trying, I find that, more often than not, I just can’t. As I have said, it is my own damn fault, my own deficiency, and I live with the knowledge of it. Oh, I know where it comes from, ultimately: it comes from that place at the bottom of the ladder of consciousness which Yeats called “the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.”
All of who we have become begins in childhood. That is why childhood, and the innocence which is its birthright, are so precious, so delicate, and so in need of protection. There is no hurt or neglect or cruelty which we suffer in early childhood which does not come back, like Banquo’s ghost, to haunt us even in our most congenial moments. We are like cuneiform clay on which the unfeeling messages of the world transmitted to us through others remain embedded. We cannot efface them, and so, unless we learn to ignore them, refuse to read the inscriptions thereupon, and write new scenarios in our experience, we will forever be victims of the past. And that is wrong; that is a recipe for unhappiness.
Life belongs to us; we do not belong to it. Like any gift, it is ours to do with as we please, as we think best for ourselves and others. But that means living in the present, and consigning the past, with all of its vicissitudes, to the past where it belongs. The past is past and ought to behave. And the hurts and failings and losses we once incurred must not be allowed to crowd our current consciousness with corrosive regret. We are creatures of the present and creators of the future; what has happened must be finished, what is gone must be left behind. Forget the bad stuff; focus on the good stuff. Close your eyes to the sorrows behind you and open them to the joys that are present and the wonders that are possible. Live now and in the future as you have never lived before, and your spirit will be freer and your heart will be at peace.