Carrying the past

We were in Colorado recently visiting family and while there we checked out the Pikes Peak Gem and Mineral Show. Within minutes of entering the main hall, I’m stopped in my tracks by a magnificent site—a fossil of a chambered nautilus.


The chambered nautilus is a “living fossil” that predates dinosaurs by about 265 million years. What’s captivated me ever since I learned about this ancient sea creature is its relationship to its past as reflected in its shell. The chambered nautilus begins its existence in a teeny space, or chamber. As it grows, it builds larger and larger chambers to inhabit, walling off the earlier space it has since outgrown in a design that allows only forward growth and movement. But these formerly-occupied chambers aren’t discarded. Instead they’re carried along and put to use, operating somewhat like an inflatable raft that allows the nautilus to remain buoyed as it navigates its present and heads toward its future.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to carry the past in this way? To feel buoyed by it rather than weighted?

There was a time in my life when I went through a very difficult period of constant retrospective thinking about my shortcomings, my sins and misdeeds in the past. A friend of mine, a follower of existential philosophy, told me that I practiced what in the Middle Ages was called delectatio morosa, a term used to describe the way in which monks used to think about their past misdeeds and sins, meditating on them for days instead of doing what was necessary at the present. She said that our past is not static and that it constantly changes according to our deeds at the present. The things that we do at the present throw a light backward upon our previous shortcomings and deeds; every act of ours presently performed transforms the past. If we make use of them as a motoric force, for instance, that pushes us to do good things, we redeem our past and give a new meaning and a new sense to our past actions. ~ Czeslaw Milosz: Conversations (2006)

One final stroke of wisdom: While the nautilus roots itself in the outermost chamber of its shell, it spends most of its waking life protruding well beyond its perimeter. Living, as it were, outside the box.

P.S. If you find that your past is more of a weight than a buoy, check out Bouncing Back by Linda Graham. Combining mindfulness, relational psychology and neuroscience, I’ve found Linda’s book to be a resourceful work with many easy-to-implement strategies for building resilience.