Allegan County News & Union Enterprise Courier-Leader & Paw Paw Flashes Saugatuck/Douglas Commercial Record

Life as Performance Art

“Stop using the word ‘re-gret,’” and older woman ad-vised me. “Regret is auseless emotion. You would be bet-ter off dropping it from your vocabulary.”
I have come to realize she was right, and charitable too. To regret something means it was in the past. The words were spoken, the ac-tion taken and we can’t go back to change them.
We all have chapters we do not want published, foibles we do not need someone else to rehash for us. None will change the reality of the past.
Still, we run around with tapes in our mind about how we could have done some-thing differently. Some peo-ple do it as self-inflicted pun-ishment, the better to make themselves feel stupid. It is almost as if we are imitating Coleridge’s poem “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” believ-ing that we are forever doomed to failure and dis-appointment.
Sometimes it occurs while researching the family tree. We might start out hoping that we’ll find some long-unclaimed fortune or a castle in Scotland with our name on it. More likely, we find a collection of hardworking, decent and thoroughly dull people. Then we find our family had “black sheep” too.
A cousin on my mother’s side had a big tomato plan-tation in Arkansas and rent-ed some land to sharecrop-pers who had to live in com-pany homes and buy from the company store. There was considerable racism in all of it.
On my father’s side, a fam-ily member several genera-tions ago was a unsuccess-ful con artist who ended up spending time as a guest of the Minnesota Territory.
We cannot go back to clean up these messes either. We can regret the behaviors long before our time, but these deeds are not our responsibility.
We also know whole groups of people have done harmful and hateful things to other groups. Our country is no exception. From the beginning, both in Latin America and New England, European settlers did their utmost to annihilate Native peoples or push them off to reservations. We know about abuses of slavery and the Jim Crow era.
When Irish immigrants first poured into this country, they too were despised and abused. A decade or so lat-er, the Know-Nothing Party tried to drive out German immigrants, Roman Catho-lics, Masons and anyone unlike themselves/
Later there was animosity and bad behavior when war brides and “Displaced Peo-ples” arrived here. More re-cently, refugees from South-east Asia, the Middle East and Afghanistan have been on the receiving end. Right now migrants from Latin and South America are often treated badly.
Long before that, ancient nations and empires warred against their neighbors for more territory, wealth and power. Even in the best of times, rulers of these nations could be brutal to their own people.
We cannot go back in time and “fix” things. All we can do is study history, put a marker in the book before closing it and think things through.
What did we learn from our study? What lessons can we apply so we do not repeat those evils. What can we do to make things better? Here is where we can be responsi-ble for our actions.
That is our work, not pious words of regret for things that happened long before we were born. If we shirk this responsibility, we will perpet-uate failures of the past.
Yet a growing number of people, including those who hold political offices, are trying to diminish history’s importance, even erase what does not further their own objectives.
Not only does it erase the groups most adversely trou-bled by bad behavior, it makes it impossible to have a total story.
If we can from the past to work for a better future, we can minimize burdens of regret.

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