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History matters even more if the past is but a ghost

On Writing

History matters even more if the past is but a ghost

Stephen H. Provost

Timeless Now: The Empyrean Gate is my 20th book, with two more completed and in the pipeline for release next year. It marks a return to subjects touched on in some of my earlier projects, including philosophy and spirituality., and in a sense, it has brought me full circle while at the same time collecting a series of insights gleaned over the years into a new, cohesive whole. It’s available on Amazon in paperback and ebook form, and I’ve made it as affordable as I can because I believe in its message.

If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.
— Rudyard Kipling

How can a historical writer dismiss the past as a mere shadow, a ghost, a phantom? It seems more than a little ironic on the face of it, I have to admit. Contradictory, even.

I spent nearly a decade researching a 1,000-page book on ancient history – my two-part Phoenix Principle, a look at the development of Western religion from the perspective of myth and politics.* It was the first book I ever wrote. More recently, over the past four years, I’ve written five books about 20th century Americana and the biography of a sports legend.**  

But my latest book, Timeless Now, begins by declaring, “Time does not exist,” and makes the point that all we really have is the present moment; the past itself is nothing but a series of ghost stories preserved, imperfectly, through memory. That might seem to diminish the importance of history, but for me, it makes it all the more precious. Because, without those memories, it simply vanishes, as though it were never there – and that would be a shame.

I love those stories, which is why I’m so passionate about history. Besides, stories of the past contain valuable lessons and, as George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Memory-stories provide context for the present, and they do exist in the present, even though the events they describe are proverbial dust in the wind.

The very fact that the past no longer exists makes preserving memory-stories that much more important – even though the stories are often flawed, or preserved at a slant because of the storyteller’s agenda. If the past itself existed in the present, we’d have no need for these stories; we could just check the facts directly. The stories preserve a crucial link to what was; they tell us where we’ve been.

Old friends and cold meals

The problem is not with the stories themselves, but with how we treat them. Do we welcome them for brief visits, like old friends and teachers who drop by for afternoon tea? Or do we cling to their coattails and beg them to stay, even as the evening meal grows cold and friends from the present wait outside on the doorstep?

The point is not to forget the past or the stories it has bequeathed us, but rather to refrain from attempting to make it our present. And that temptation is all too real. Instead of looking around us at the single moment we inhabit, at all the joy and wonders that surround us, do we focus instead on the guilt and regret and blame for things that can never be changed? Do we relive these things a thousand times in the hope that we might keep them from happening once in the future?

Or in seeking refuge from the pain of the present, do we retreat to the illusion of a better time, a golden age that no longer exists? Do we live inside our fond memories, hoping that the pain will go away?

We may visit museums or the graves of our loved ones, but we cannot live there, any more than we can live in a future that has yet to happen – and almost surely will not happen in the ways that we expect. We must surely grieve and honor that which took place in our past, but the ghosts of that past are like shadows, only existing in the light of the present.

The point of Timeless Now is not to forget the past, but to appreciate it for what it was – and this moment for what it is. The past can never be now, but now will soon be past, and no longer accessible to us as it is in this brief instant. It’s not something I want to miss out on.

We must remember the past, but seize the day. In this, there is no contradiction.

Be here now.
— Ram Dass

*The Phoenix Principle is available in two parts, Forged in Ancient Fires and Messiah in the Making.

**Those five books are Fresno Growing Up, Highway 99, A Whole Different League, Highway 101 and a forthcoming book on the history of department stores and shopping malls. The biography is The Legend of Molly Bolin.