The Living Past

We would like to remember all of our past, so as to be humbled by it, but nature refuses to play that game

Years ago, after the Sunday lunch, my two children, my wife and myself had one of those memorable family interactions, humouring each other and indulging in trivial talks and stories. Inevitably the conversation drifted to old times; my wife would blurt out how, at our grandmothers’ place, we had fun at dusk watching fowls and hens climbing on trees to have their evening nap. Hardly had we mentioned that when there was a sudden commotion in the room, and lo! both brother and sister would be bursting with laughter, rolling on the bed as if tickled to death by a gentle roller coaster. It was a sight to see our children ruffled by adrenaline triggered by such an innocent comment. Things got to a real climax when I incidentally mentioned the real fun of a glass of Pepsi-Cola in the olden days. It was adding fuel to fire. More guffaws, belly catching, pinching and rubbing were triggered. Tears of unstoppable laughter were seen trickling down their cheeks.

“Every year we have rituals to honour our ancestors. Are they really our past? No. They are well and alive within us. Every day when we look at the mirror we see them, their smile, their dimples on the cheeks or chins, the sheen in the eyes, the colour of their iris – all coming down through millions of years. They are with us, in our every cell; they are our chromosomes, our genes. They are us, we are them…”

To us elders, fowls sleeping on trees and Pepsi-Cola drinking were commonplace in our childhood, but to the new generation mass-produced chicken is the norm; Pepsi they had heard of, but Pepsi-Cola was extra-terrestrial language to them. On that Sunday, our children had had the time of their life.

Changing Realities

Now looking back, this episode of cultural gap can remind us how too often the new generation always bask in the belief that only the present is the absolute reality. It fails to appreciate that everything around has had a long, difficult, painful history of its own. Soon many of them would barely believe that a world without mobile phones had ever existed; even we elders, getting immune to the rapid changes in the world, are already finding pleasure watching those movies of yesteryear where the spy had to undertake a long, dangerous detour to get to a phone booth to send a secret message. Watching those old movies we have the sensation that there existed a different and virtual world just decades ago.

And the rate at which electronics is thrusting a new language into modern life will definitely baffle the old generation – and would soon make us feel very obsolete. Has each past generation felt similar embarrassment as new ideology and social changes were ushered in? Is it possible that we of the twenty-first century are living through a privileged moment when a sudden revolution in human interactions – brought about by electronics – would intervene and steer the world into a totally new age? Or are we heading towards disaster?

Of course, the senior citizens have been wised up to the concept that life is a dynamic process, and expected that, as usual, those changes were to be spread over a large time scale. But modern changes are occurring too fast; will we have time to adapt?

Some Truths

Just fancy if we go round and tell 100 persons that the human race is of African origin: how many of them would believe us? If we push our luck a bit further and tell them about the Darwin’s Theory of Evolution – that we share some 98% of our genes with our faraway cousins the chimpanzee – we would surely stir a lot of scepticism around. After all, the difference between us humans and those dumb friends is so evident. Of course, all these doubts would be part and parcel of lack of proper information and education.

Considering our own case, we would think ourselves as highly educated; yet going down the memory lane of our species how many of us will agree that most probably some of our faraway ancestors could have been cannibals, like the Papua New Guinea tribes, or had been as cruel as those Aztec people committing the crime of human sacrifice? Some historian would even tell us that such practices were common to all cultures around the world, we being the descendants of such cultures and civilizations.

That past – heavily loaded with horrors – is part and parcel of our evolution. Who knows that if the human race were to start all over again maybe we would repeat the same horror, perhaps because our brain having been wired in such a way would have no choice to act differently. However, Nature has also moulded us to conveniently forget those abominable past realities.

Fortunately as civilization marches on, new generations of people go on evolving new ideas from previous old beliefs. Our concept of life, human behaviour and relationships go on improving. New mindsets, such as belief in an ideal God the Almighty, emerges to steer us away from old cruelties and superstitions.

That’s how altruism gradually emerged out of this complicated world. And as we enter modern times, well equipped with knowledge of the Big bang, cosmology, black holes, multiverses, quantum physics, psychology, genetics and neuroscience, we have new concepts that are turning the old ones on their head. So much so that we are being told that even the concept of God is perhaps a form of self-deception, a hallucination. Add to this the vulgarization of scientific thinking and we find ourselves in a completely new world, quite different from that of 5000 years ago.

No wonder the new generation finds it difficult to assimilate the hard truth that a different world did exist before – just as we ourselves would hardly believe that some of our ancestors had been cannibals. Fortunately we have evolved a faculty to forget and close our eyes to our own embarrassing blunders. It is a form of smoothing out the rough side of our life by cutting corners to alleviate past burdens from our psyche.

Yet is it possible that everything that has happened in the past could be inscribed somewhere in our chromosomes? Is it possible that’s why, in spite of all our religiosity and our belief in an almighty, there arise now and then people like Hitler and Pol Pot, to commit murders worthy of our long forgotten ancestors?

Some 300,000 people, children included, have been killed in Syria. Two decades ago we had Rwanda, and we would have thought that we in the modern world would have seen the last of it, but it seems that we are doomed to go on committing the same mistakes over and over again. We would notice that the respective protagonists in each of those two counties are of the same faith, yet they have excuses enough to go on the rampage and butcher their own brethren and children.

And that’s where the question of how much of our past must we forget and how much to remember – where is the demarcation line? Our future involves our rationale so that we may progress, attain a sense of equilibrium and sanity, while our past interferes with our feelings and self-analysis so that we may not commit blunders again.

Past and Future

Fortunately there are nations where there seems to be a semblance of peace; they have a high standard of education and economic well-being. There people are more rationalist than religious – not to say atheist. There is less superstition and clannish behaviour. The lessons of the past had been learned and a new concept of civilization, based on reason, has developed. In these nations it is being realized that federating together, while forgetting about cheap nationalism, will help themselves economically and keep war at bay and give modern civilization a chance to flourish.

We would like to remember all of our past, so as to be humbled by it, but nature refuses to play that game. The memory of some painful episodes has to be wiped out for ever. In so doing Nature prompts us to unburden a heavily loaded psychological guilt – to prompt us to look ahead, evolve positively and to start afresh. And maybe that’s how we have come to belong to a forward looking civilization where we can travel by air, and eventually go out into outer space

Every year we have rituals to honour our ancestors. Are they really our past? No. They are well and alive within us. Every day, when we look at the mirror, we see them, their smile, their dimples on the cheeks or chins, the sheen in the eyes, the colour of their iris – all coming down through millions of years. They are with us, in our every cell; they are our chromosomes, our genes. They are us, we are them.

Salut les ancêtres!


* Published in print edition on 19 October 2018

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