We move backward and forward through time, scurrying ahead into our future, shuffling back to the past. Unlike our roamings in dimensional space, with time there are only two directions to go.
However, both of the directions are rich and complex, and offer an endless number of potential meanings. Mapping the timeline of our life means generating a selective future and a selective past, based on the needs of this moment.
Today I went to a University of Washington woman’s basketball game, the completely unexpected gift of a friend’s enthusiasm. I was greatly impressed by the astonishingly gifted Kelsey Plum and in general it was one of the most fun experiences I’ve had in a while. Along with the fun there were multiple memories: going to high school games, playing in the band when I was a freshman at UW, the girl’s basketball games at the Catholic high school I taught at in the 80’s. Sitting in the stands I found myself constructing a made-to-order timeline of those experiences, noticing how they resonated with my present-moment reality, sifting, rearranging, letting go of hurts and disappointed hopes, recovering access to youthful experiences of joy, noticing at a distance my own participation in team sports as a young person and the various levels of yearning, frustration, belonging and exclusion that went with that.
Tomorrow I will encounter a fresh set of experiences, and that timeline of the past will shift again, introducing new light and new shadows, unearthing some memories and burying others. It’s a ceaseless process of making meaning, beautiful but sometimes daunting. We stabilize that a bit by familiarity: a day at home or at the office doesn’t generate quite the kaleidoscopic array of timeline elements that happened for me today at the basketball arena. And we stabilize it further by our identity, our commitments, a core sense of purpose that allows us to continue to assert who we are as we navigate the next wave of sensory and emotional input.
Something else that is likely to stabilize our sense of our past: trauma. The damaging experiences that cut us to the core are the high iron peaks in the rear view mirror that won’t quickly disappear around the bend. At times it seems that they are following us! This is where healing work is needed: with the aid of Spirit, given time and attention even these seemingly fixed features of our temporal landscape can be transformed. Traumatic experiences don’t disappear from the repertoire of memories out of which we construct our past. But they can become more fluid. They can become a part of the fabric of a whole, coherent, lived experience, not a haunting overpowering presence.
The forward direction of time is much the same: endlessly shifting, reconfiguring itself in the winds of our hopes and fears. Every day I experience a different future. As with past trauma, when a particular vivid anxiety presents itself (many of us are feeling this in the political sphere these days), the future can become unjustifiably solid – for what is actually coming no-one knows, and what does come will itself mean so many different things! We can find healing in relationship to our future just as much as to our past.
And to complete the picture: just as trauma and fear can overly fix the past and future, so to can we fixate on idealized versions of both past and future. We can be haunted by a romanticized past that never was quite like that; we can be mesmerized by a future dream that may never appear in quite that shape.
Flexibility in both directions of the temporal dimension gives us the freedom to create a temporal dimension that most admirably suits what the present moment is calling us to be.