No amount of regret can bring reconciliation. “Nothing erases the past”, Ted Chiang says. “There is repentance, there is atonement, and there is forgiveness. That is all.” We can hope for mercy, without promise. We can seek redemption, without assurance. We can work toward restitution, without a guarantee. We can do nothing else. It isn’t much, but perhaps it’s just enough, maybe even more than.
Most things that are broken can’t be mended. Some things, once poured out, can’t be put back. Nothing spoken can ever again be unsaid. “[M]oving on is a myth”, Suleika Jaouad says, “a lie you sell yourself on when your life has become unendurable.”
The sacred canon of the clean slate is the unholy “delusion that you can build a barricade between yourself and your past”. But, the past is never somewhere else. Never far away. Never a distant yonder. Never a discarded ‘over-there’.
“The past is not one separate place”, says Matt Haig, “It is many, many places, and they are always ready to rise into the present”, always-already present. Everywhere hope emerged and fear shattered through. Everywhere you were hurt, and where you did the hurting too. All of it. The pangs and twitches of an absent-presence. The vacancy that becomes a revenant. Always there.
And, there is no ideal-you. No Platonic realm of perfect forms in which to discover your faultless self. One that is clean and whole. One that is unblemished and unscarred by every tool that chiseled you into shape; every trauma, every misfortune, every mistake. It never leaves.
You are never just one thing. Never just one self. You are not only “Your current self”, John Green says, but also “all the selves you used to be”. You are legion. You are many. The addict and the sponsor. The drunkard and the preacher. The saint. The sinner. The prophet. The whore. “[W]ho we were and what we did and what was done to us”, says Holly Black, “we don’t get to shrug that stuff off and become some new shiny person”. We are the atomic weight of the things we carry. The mass of who and what we have been. An arithmetical expression of the elements that make up who we are.
We dream about starting over. Wishing for ways to make amends. But, “Fresh starts”, Ali Millar suggests, “are a lot more complicated than they look.” Sometimes things that look so solid turn out to be made of straw. Sometimes straw can be spun into gold. Sometimes what looks like a house of cards can withstand a storm, and sometimes we’re dealt a bad hand that we do our best to play. Hope has always been something supple, and almost always bends beyond reason.
You can be both broken and complete. Perhaps, the very best of us are. Paradoxical anomalies turned into logical proofs. Proof that you have struggled and prevailed. Proof of your refusal to be the sum of your faults. Proof that yours is the name given to striving and strength. That you are the word used to describe the wrestling.
Perhaps there will always be a darkness that traces your steps and matches your stride. A darkness that you would prefer to either control or cast aside. In every shadow there is fear, there is remorse, and there is regret. But, within it there is also love, and there is hope, and there is a friend.
When it comes to the past, you can’t ever really lay it down. Can’t ever really let it go. But, you can learn to hold it loosely, knowing that “somewhere out there,” as Millar says, “there’s something better worth beginning again for.”
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