One of the more indispensable words of instruction I have ever received came from Dr. Fred Luskin who was head of the Stanford University Forgiveness Project. He said, “To forgive is to give up all hope for a better past.” According to Luskin, what keeps people frozen solid with the regrets and shame of yesteryear is the lingering optimism that they might go back and change it.
Forget that, Dr. Luskin says – not the past – but the prospects of adjusting anything that is now in the rearview mirror. The Apostle Paul said something similar in the New Testament. He made peace with his past and his past self (the self is the hardest person in the world with whom to make peace) with this formula: “Forgetting the past and I press on toward what is ahead.”
Can we really forget the past? No. Painful memories, bad choices we have made, ways we have been harmed or harmed others, the heartbreaking losses of offense and betrayal – none of these can be changed. There is no supernatural whitewash for our memory banks or a little recessed button in the back of our skulls that will reboot our brains.
Yet, we can forget the past if forgetting is as Dr. Luskin has defined it; learning to live so that the past no longer controls us. Thus, forgetting is not an act of ignoring our past experiences. It is integrating those experiences with the present. Forgetting the past is not act of erasing our memories. It is an act of hopeful defiance, whereby we keep living, keep moving, and keep keeping on.
The Chinese have a proverb to this effect. “Break the kettles and sink the ships,” they say. This saying comes from an ancient military battle almost 2000 years ago. A new tribal king came to power and immediately attacked his neighbor, surrounding the city of Julu. The king of Julu called for reinforcements from his generals, and the army came marching to save their king.