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Stranded in the present

By Peter Sellick - posted Monday, 4 January 2016


There are traumas so great and so terrible in the lives of nations and individuals that their pull suffocates hope so that we remain stranded in the present. Of all people in history, we of the post twentieth century live under the shadow of deeds that are beyond imagining and beyond forgetting. As such, they are events that cannot be incorporated into our understanding of what it means to be human. We read about the astounding loss of life on the Russian front in WWII, of the holocaust of the Jews, of the inhumanity of Japanese soldiers to their captives. The list goes on and on and we begin to wonder if we can define what "humanity" is.

The result of all this is a kind of post-traumatic stress that haunts both individuals and nations. The resultant anxiety, or more, our panic, closes down the future so that we remain stranded in the present. The forces of memory hold us captive to the past. Even if we are not aware of it, the events of the twentieth century undermine our resolve, eat away at our certainty and colour our time.

One strategy is to look for explanations. For example the first and second World War may be partially explained, according to Alice Miller, by a poisonous pedagogy rampant in Germany that broke the will of the children and left them subject to authority and devoid of human feeling. We look for explanations in political systems, in the obliteration of the individual in communism or the rampant greed of capitalism. In ourselves we consult therapists in order to understand what forces moved us to perpetrate actions that we are now ashamed of.

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While explanations are important they are limited in their ability to release us from trauma. We may partially understand, we may speculate on cause and effect but the shadows still remain. No explanation can completely set us free from the past.

We are left with the unresolvable problem of human evil. Search as we may, explanations only go so far, and we are left wondering about human nature itself and hence about our own natures. We awaken to the realisation that, given different circumstances, we could act in similar ways, that we have the seeds of terrible acts hidden in our hearts. Who are we; angels or demons?

Freud described trauma as a disease of memory. The events of the past will not go away, they return unbidden in the present to mangle time that becomes, as Hamlet says, "Out of joint". If the present is damaged by a wound that will never heal, our self understanding also comes adrift as do, necessarily, the engines of our action. We become paralysed.

Nations that refuse to acknowledge their complicity in brutalities of the past are particularly susceptible to malaise in the present. For example, the refusal of Japan to recognise its part in WWII may be contrasted to the response of Germany. I wonder wether Japan's stagnant economy and demographic decline points to a failure in culture while the opposite is true for Germany.

The second factor in our paralysis is that we have lost a potent view of what the future might be. We have inherited the linear understanding of time courtesy of the Judeo/Christian tradition that posited the "Day of the Lord" in the Old Testament and the "Kingdom of Heaven/God" in the New. Our current view of progress is reliant on the idea that history has a direction, that we are headed somewhere, that history is not an eternal return. Secularism has hijacked this idea but transformed it into a future that we will manufacture, literally. While the biblical telos is vague in that it points to the reign of justice and healing and closeness to God, the secular telos is defined in terms of material and technological progress, a much more closed and limited vision. Such a domestic vision of the future does not have the breadth and dynamism to give hope. It is also, unlike the kingdom of heaven, all of our own making. What happens when we tire of next gadget that promises even more control and convenience? What will our politics focus on when we do achieve a surplus in the Federal budget?

Thus the damaged present that we all endure in our time has two causes, the inability to deal with the past and its threat to the human subject and the loss of hope in a future state. While on one side of politics John Howard could talk about being captive to a "black armband view of history" that would refuse to deal with past trauma, Julia Gillard can say that "Today I seek a mandate from the Australian people to move Australia forward." Both statements demonstrate that we live in a stranded present that is closed to the past and to the future since "forward" is not a destination.

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Without transcendent hope, i.e. hope that does not rely on our own accomplishments, we resort to achievable goals, again, both personally and nationally. Is there anything drearier? Our orientation is of increasing control instead of expectant hope. It is no wonder that the words of our politicians "forked no lightning". They have become, almost exclusively, economic managers. These accountants of the nation could not enthuse the local football team.

It is clear that neither side of politics can give us a vision of the future and that is why political discourse in this country is so empty. No one talks about the kind of society we may look forward to. Why do have an economy in the first place? Are we really going to sacrifice the lives of the less well off in order to produce a surplus?

Along with the rest of the West, with the possible exception of America, we have lost the traditions that would set us free from the past and give us hope for the future. There is still a glimmer of the old politics. There are those who point to the sins of the past and seek reconciliation. The issues of institutional sexual abuse and the marginalisation of native peoples come to mind. However, without the grace of God this too is but another thing we must do. Guilt established allows no redemption. We have lost the communities that teach us about confession and forgiveness. We have also lost the communities that have a vision of the future that is not reducible to what we can achieve.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences. He has a website called Coondle Art Presentations.

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