Christopher McElroy

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Participation in the past, present and future

We exist in the present.  But we came from the past.  And we will go into the future.

The way we act today cannot fail to take into account our past, and the consequences of our decisions affect our future.

We cannot therefore live solely in the present.

We live in a house constructed in the past.  It has taps that will allow us to wash in the future.  We currently have food in the fridge which we bought yesterday, but we will eat tomorrow or the day after.

Everything we encounter in our lives (including our own self) is a dialectic of past, present and future.

According to St Augustine, time is not measured solely by external means (e.g. days of the week) but by the active understanding of our mind.  Time becomes an action in which our mind actively creates our past, engages with the present and attempts to forsee our future.  Our memory engages with our attention and our expectation.

As identified by French philosopher Paul Ricoeur, we do not engage in such temporal thinking in isolation, but rather our memory, attention and expectation are constantly interplaying to produce understanding.  We interpret our past based on our present and in full awareness of our future needs.

The importance of understanding our thinking in this way, is that we both receive and recreate our past (memory) into the present, AND our memory (past) interprets us in the present.  Our past helps us to ‘understand’ our present, but our past also challenges how we understand ourself in the present.  I recall my school days, and understand that my love of music came from my experiences there.  However, my schooling experience also challenges virtually every aspect of my thinking and actions today, both musical and otherwise.

Understanding then may be seen as a process of self-understanding and self-actualisation.  Our past both shapes our present and future, but also helps us to better understand ourselves.  Understanding is not of course just rational: it is an action of the mind, of the heart, of the soul.

Our past does not limit our future.  The chicken which is in our fridge having been bought yesterday and intended to form the centerpiece of our Sunday roast can instead become chicken chopped and boiled into a broth for our soup.  Our new use for the chicken doesn’t change the original intention, but rather as the past meets present the future needs identify a different way of proceeding.  The past, present and future interconnect.

It is often said that some people think with their mind, others with their heart.  The inference being that those who think with the mind will be less emotionally affected in their decision making.  In reality, we cannot separate the two.  Understanding is a self actualisation where our future shapes our present and our past informs our future.  Our mind, heart, rationality work in tandem in our hermeneutical spiral.  Our past experiences can motivate us to rise up and attack, perhaps engaged through some past wrongdoing.  Our consideration of a present problems can be heaving informed by our future worries.  How we see these situations teaches us much about ourselves, both and we were, we are, and how we will be.

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