Are you clinging to your mummified past?

Gana clinging to her loss

The poignant images above were posted at Flickr by lunlun16. They were part of a story about Gana, a gorilla at the zoo in Munster, Germany and her response to the death of her 3-month old son. Gana simply wouldn’t let go. She wouldn’t let anyone near the lifeless corpse. These images got me thinking about how we sometimes hold on to our past tragedies, pains, and suffering long after it’s time to let go.

My Friend’s Self-Inflicted Wounds

Shortly after learning about Gana, I found myself listening to a guy I’ve known for years go on and on (for the umpteenth time!) about something that had caused him great pain. His story tells how several decades ago he had been badly mistreated by someone close to him. And despite years of outrage, anger, resentment, and demands that he deserved an apology, he never received one. Though the abuser is long gone and out of his life, this event continues to poison him. It colors his self image. And it shapes his interactions with others. But despite the pain, he won’t let it go. He keeps it alive by the animated telling and retelling of the story. I’ve heard it many times.

But this time as I listened to him, the images of Gana were fresh in my mind.  Like Gana, this man was holding on to something that had been an important part of his past. Like Gana, he refused to let go. And, like Gana, he caused those who witnessed his clinging to become simultaneously horrified and filled with compassion. Though an outside observer can quickly see the futility of carrying a mummified corpse from the past, both Gana and my friend somehow seemed to derive meaning from it. In some perverse way they had defined themselves by their ugly burdens.

Mummies Are Bad for Your Health!

Now I’m no psychologist. So I can’t speculate about what deep psychic motives might provoke someone to cling to tragedy. But as one who’s been on the receiving end of these stories, I can tell you that they’ve made it difficult for me to deal with this guy. Unless I’m feeling extraordinarily energetic and positive, I avoid him. Who wants to feel sad? … or angry? … or helpless because you can’t travel back in time and protect this guy from something that happened so long ago?  So I find that with repeated exposures to his story my compassion is fading and my impatience is increasing. He seems absolutely determined to make me watch this mental movie of his over and over and over again. Worse, he seems to have resolved that it will be a defining moment in his life’s narrative.

It reminds me of the poem “In the Desert” by Stephen Crane:

In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.

I said, “Is it good, friend?”
“It is bitter—bitter,” he answered;
“But I like it
“Because it is bitter,
“And because it is my heart.”

Long ago, as a sophomore English Literature student and innocent moth-drawn-to-the-flame newcomer to the bleakness of Existentialism, I found Crane’s poem strangely compelling — even ennobling in its proof that life was pain that must be somehow embraced. However, today, as a guy with lots of miles on my psyche, I find Crane’s poem and it’s perspective to be darkly self-indulgent.

Let It Go, Already!

Decades of adult life have shown me that everyone eventually faces tragedy of one kind or another. Everyone must endure pain. But everyone need not add the overlay of endless self-inflicted suffering by replaying memories that rekindle the fires of their pain again and again. Researchers tell us that the retelling of any life-story almost guarantees that it be assigned larger amounts of brain real estate (i.e., more neurons) so it may be more easily called up and vividly remembered. Worse, since our ever-vigilant “fight or flight” response system can’t seem to tell the difference between tragedy that is remembered versus tragedy that is actually happening in the here and now, it’s just not healthy to relive miseries from the past!  In order to survive and thrive, we can’t afford much backward gazing at tragedy. As Chuck Palahniuk says (my bold added):

“When you understand that what you’re telling is just a story. It isn’t happening anymore. When you realize the story you’re telling is just words, when you can just crumble it up and throw your past in the trashcan, then we’ll figure out who you’re going to be.”

So are you clinging to mummified corpses from your past? Isn’t it time to move on and destroy their power over your future?


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