I’ve got to say something, only I don’t know what it is that I have to say. Or rather, I have something that I really really want to say, but I don’t feel altogether comfortable saying it. So it’s dither time.
We all know about dither time. It’s the time between the time you decide you know something that is true and important, and the time you try to communicate it. So you dither. I’m going to tell you right now that I’m not going to say what it is that I’m dithering about before the end of this post, so if you think I am, stop now. Instead, I’m going to distract myself by talking about something else entirely.
I finished Paul Fussell’s Doing Battle last night. He defines it, I think, as a kind of war story. Much of it is set up in terms of how he happened to be in a place to be hit by shell fragments but not killed when two men he was with were killed. Much of it is an account of his life afterward. I enjoyed it, but I don’t think it’s a Great Book. In it, he disparages his Class, which I think is a much better book, both as a descriptive tale and as an idea he wants to get across.
Perhaps that’s because he can only look at his wartime experience out of the corner of his eye. I think that’s probably it. He is doing precisely what I am: dithering. That’s why so much of the book is not about war, and that which is about war, though it is occasionally graphic in its details (the colostomy kid; the new replacement getting his heart blown out the back of his shirt) generally falls flat.
We dither because we can’t stand to look directly at something. So we talk all around it; our pain at seeing the edges, or our nobility in fighting against it later on. Was Fussell really emotionless when he killed? I can’t believe it, but the flatness of the narrative communicates exactly that. So it is for me also, when I look back at the experiences of my youth; I can’t look directly at them because the memories cause so much pain. So I look around them, and try to make myself a champion in the fight against the evils in which I participated.
So does Newt Gingrich. When he says he’s had to “go to God” to repent, he’s avoiding the issue. He’s dithering. He doesn’t want to have to look at what he did and find his own evil staring back at him when he considers his behavior toward his first and second wives. So he convinces himself that because he is forgiven, the past is dead.
But it’s not like that. The past is ever alive because we carry it in our bones. Was I cruel to someone? That cruelty lives on in some form; it influenced their lives, and it influenced mine, but it never goes away. Perhaps this is why redemptive narratives are so important to religion. As in the case of Newt, they let us put behind ourselves that which we should not have done. What we should never assume is that the past is really gone.
For me, it intrudes. I remember a harsh word that I spoke to someone, I recall a hurt I imposed, and these things are much clearer in my mind than any possible good that I could ever have done. I remember everything. I can be riding my bike down a trail in summer and suddenly the face of girl from thirty years ago appears, and I remember the words I said or the actions I took, and I literally have to turn my head away. Not figuratively, literally. I curse myself aloud now for my stupidity at the earlier time. A teacher to whom I told less than the truth about why my paper was late; a friend cut deep. The road not taken, or taken wrongly. The time I spit over a railing.
I do not know if the other people involved remember these dishonorable things, but I do. I’m remembering one of them right now, about which I’m not going to write. I’m dithering.
If much of Fussell’s book is dithering (and I think it is), so is much of all of our lives. We cannot escape the past; the most we can hope is to be forgiven for it. But we know ourselves, and we cannot forgive what we so intimately know. The best thing we can do–and maybe this is why we remember so clearly–is to make ourselves do better in the future. The past lives on in all of us; once you’ve stepped in the stream, it’s a different stream.
So we dither, go on, and dither again. And sometimes we catch a glimpse. And so we go on.