As I’ve thought about this, I’ve concluded that wisdom involves facing the wrong and saying, yes I got it wrong – and I probably got it wrong more times than I remember, and for that I’m sorry – but as much as I wish it hadn’t happened, it did and I’m sorry, and I can’t change it now. I’d like to think that growing old increases both wisdom and humility and maybe that’s what Michael Palin had when he decided not to airbrush out the memory of his sister’s suicide. Knowing nothing of that situation, I can imagine that if that was us, we might have many reasons why we might want to forget such a thing or, at the very least, not acknowledge it publicly.
But dare we in old age allow the truth to come through – it happened, I’m sorry, I wish it hadn’t but it did. I’d like to think that I would handle those situations differently if they occurred again today; I’d like to think that just maybe I’d learnt something along the way that might avoid it happening again, but now it is too late. The trouble was that I didn’t have the wisdom back then, but that is what life is about, surely, about learning along the way and hopefully I’m wiser today than I was last year. Hopefully!
Here’s an intriguing thought: when I die, will they be able to say, he carried on learning, carried on changing right up to the end, or will they say, he was a stubborn old fool who couldn’t face the truth. What we’ve said above is the truth isn’t it? We got it wrong, more than once. If we were able to rerun it with today’s hindsight we would do it differently but we struggled through the difficult patches with limited vision and limited wisdom, because that it what being a human being is all about.
When I look back on my life from today’s vantage point, I realise I was and am a damaged human being. You may not have the courage to be able to say that about yourself, perhaps because the thought of guilt scares you, or perhaps, very simply, you’ve never been able to be brutally honest about yourself. But I don’t know a single human being who hasn’t got it wrong in some way or other, and if that upsets you, I don’t say it from a position of strength but of weakness. When I used to ask my law students why we needed laws they always answered, “Because human beings aren’t nice!” You only have to look around at the ills of society and the world to know that that is true.
But this isn’t defeatist, whining, navel-gazing. This isn’t the blame game which is played out in the media so often. This says, if we got it wrong last week, let’s try and get it right this week. If I blew it with a relationship last month, let’s see if I can do better next month. If I spoke out a wrong word in the family yesterday, let’s see if I can say something healing and encouraging tomorrow. If I missed a great opportunity last year, let’s see if I can grab what comes next year.
Would I like to air-brush out various periods of my life? You bet! Would that be the right thing to do? No way! That is escapism. All around us are things we are unhappy about and would like to criticise. Facing my own frailty makes me less liable to say stupid negative things about others. Being aware of my weakness and past failures makes me reticent to leap in to the fray to try and change the world for better, but if we’re all the same, then it might as well be me going for it, because somebody needs to!
Will I be wiser next week than this? I doubt it. I think wisdom takes rather longer to arrive. And if you have a bad remembrance, you have my sympathy, not my condemnation, because I know where you have come from. Today we can sit and drink a coffee, a tea or a beer together and look at the past and say together, I’m sorry about that, in my life and yours. How can we together help it not to happen again? Every November we have Remembrance Sunday. When it comes round, let’s face it honestly, with sadness and with sorrow, whether or not we have war memories, and with a desire for a better tomorrow. Let’s not airbrush out of life our past failures but use them to make us more determined to get it right tomorrow.
Quote: “Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though chequered by failure... than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a grey twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.
(Source: Theodore Roosevelt)
6. Airbrushing the past.
Michael Palin, I believe, questioned whether in his ‘Diaries’ in 1987 he should mention the suicide of his sister, Angela, or airbrush her out (paint her out) but decided he didn’t want her ‘written out of history’. That was a difficult call. I talk about memory on another page but I sometimes wonder if memory is all it’s cracked up to be.
I guess that most of us can look back on our past lives and find there are bits we’d rather forget. I believe it was Johnny Cash who said, “You build on failure. You use it as a stepping stone. Close the door on the past. You don't try to forget the mistakes, but you don't dwell on it. You don't let it have any of your energy, or any of your time, or any of your space.” I think that’s a lot easier to say than to do. For many of us we can’t forget the mistakes or the pain of the past, and as much as we wish we didn’t, we do dwell on it. Time does help to dull the memory but I wonder how many of us would actually like to ‘airbrush’ an incident out of our past lives, or even whole chunks?