Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
Isaiah 43:18-19 NRSV
There is a classic episode of the 90’s TV show Seinfeld where the character George Costanza is insulted in a meeting. Refreshments have been served and George is chowing down on some shrimp. From across the conference table a man named Riley says, “George, the ocean called. They’re running out of shrimp.” The room erupts in laughter and George is humiliated.
Driving home from work, George is running over the humiliation in his mind over and over when the perfect comeback occurs to him. He is furious that he couldn’t think of it at the moment he was insulted and has to find a way to use his perfect comeback to get back at Riley. As it turns out, Riley has taken a new job at another company, but George just can’t let it go. So he arranges a fake meeting with Riley’s new company and flies all the way from New York to Akron, Ohio to get back at his nemesis.
In a new conference room in Akron, George brings in a huge amount of shrimp and begins stuffing them in his mouth. Once again Riley unleashes his zinger, “George, the ocean called. They’re running out of shrimp.” This time George looks triumphant as he stands up and unleashes his comeback. “Oh yeah? The jerk store called and they’re running out of you!” The conference room is quiet and the people around the table look, if anything, confused. Once again, Riley is too quick for George and has a comeback to the comeback, “What’s it matter? You’re they’re all-time best seller!” The room erupts in laughter.
The episode ends with George driving home from the airport reliving his humiliation again and again in his mind. Then another comeback occurs to him, so he turns his car around and heads back toward the airport presumably to fly back to Ohio.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve had occasions where I felt humiliated or hurt, and like George, I couldn’t let them go. I replayed in my mind the painful moment and then fantasized about how things would have been different if I had been quicker on my feet or more capable in the moment. Those memories aren’t as bad as the ones of when I was the one doing the hurting. At times, I’ve replayed in my mind what things could have been like if I had just kept my mouth shut, said less instead of more. The sad thing about our pasts is that no matter how many times we replay painful scenes in our minds, the reality of what happened never changes.
There is good reason why the movies are filled with people wishing to go back in time to change their pasts. From It’s a Wonderful Life to Back to the Future to The Avengers: Endgame. Who hasn’t wished they could go back in time and do things differently? To make the perfect comeback. To take back a word or action that hurts the ones we love.
I’ve learned from years in ministry that people can carry the pain of their past all the way to their deathbeds. I’ve been privileged to hear deathbed confessions from folks I’ve been with. What I’ve discovered is that rarely are such confessions scandalous or sensational. Most of the time they are run of the mill stuff that comes with living a life: not spending enough time with their children, not appreciating their parents enough, broken friendships and ordinary sins of selfishness and indifference. On most such occasions, I wondered why they had bothered to carry such trivial burdens all the way through their lives only to let them go at the last when they no longer had the opportunity to enjoy living without them?
There is not a human being alive who wouldn’t do things differently, at least a little, if they had the chance to do so. Yet, those I know who seem to live the best kind of lives are people who have accepted their mistakes and the pain inflicted by others and then learned from them. The key seems to be making peace with the past and then letting the past be the past. Those unable to do so are like George from Seinfeld doomed to relive a painful past and therefore they create a painful present with no future.
Maya Angelou writes, “We cannot change the past, but we can change our attitude toward it. Uproot guilt and plant forgiveness. Tear out arrogance and seed humility. Exchange love for hate --- thereby, making the present comfortable and the future promising.”
Sometimes uprooting the pain of the past is not easy. People who have experienced trauma are literally stuck in those moments of intense pain. Neurological studies have shown how the brain literally gets stuck like a broken record having been unable to store traumatic memories in the normal place in the brain memories are stored. Trauma leaves a person literally unable to move on without treatment and therapy.
For most of us, however, we have the power to stop living in the past. Sometimes it may take talking it through with a counselor, minister or trusted friend, but the past can indeed become the past instead of a painful present. When we find ourselves reliving those painful moments, we can stop ourselves and intentionally learn to let them go. If we are intentional about it and open to God’s grace for ourselves and for others, we can “plant forgiveness” and “seed humility.”
Only when we allow the past to be the past, learning what God wishes to teach us from it and then moving on, can we live peacefully in the present and embrace the new things God has for us in the future.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
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We're Park Hill Christian Church in KC MO. We seek to follow Jesus by praising God, loving those we meet and serving the vulnerable.