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"Clinging To The Past" - What Makes People Do It, And Is That What They're Really Doing?

Updated on June 28, 2015
Lisa HW profile image

"Lisa" , a "social sciences enthusiast" and Mom of three grown kids, writes from personal experience/exposure and/or past research

Author's Note

This Hub was written in reply to a question found in HubPages' "Answers" section. Here's the question as it was presented:

"What makes people illogically cling to the past when the past in many aspects is totally irrelevant. in postmodern 21st century society? Why are some people fearful of modernity, change, and growth, oftentimes preferring to remain totally entrenched in the past much to their detriment?"

This is obviously a pretty broad question; and since it was posted with a picture of a well known, 1970's, sit-com, bigot (Archie Bunker of "All In The Family") the question (and its wording) suggest a definite slant toward associating a wish to preserve some things of the past with ignorance (as was the character of Archie Bunker presented/created at the time).

I'd like to try to take a more objective and general look at the wish to preserve at least some things associated with the past, because all things from the past aren't negative or bad things (or positive/good things either, of course).


What, Exactly, Is "The Past"

My immediate response to the question asked was to think of the saying, "One man's trash is another man's treasure." With regard to what anyone wants to "cling to", there are some things with roots in the past that, if not universal "treasure" (what is clearly good for humanity, or the world, in general) are some people's individual "treasure". Whether the more "individual treasure" is all that much of a gem or not can depend on what's in question. Things like ego and the unhealthy wish/need to control others sometimes make "one man's treasure" nothing more than his (or her) personal "treasure". Considering the "one man's trash..." saying from a different angle, one mans' past is often another man's present. So there's that. "Past can be as simple and individual as one person's having cold eggs for breakfast earlier today to as complex and broad as "everything that has ever happened in the world (or universe, for that matter) before the present moment (or generation, or era, etc. etc.). So, cut-off points from "past" to "present" aren't always clear-cut. Then, too, there is the fact that, regardless of how individual or "reduced down" any "present" is or isn't, no present moment just came out of the proverbial "blue" in a big puff of magical smoke. Neither does "present" begin or end with any individual (although how much someone is involved with any moment can mean that one his immediate involvement in that moment/situation ends or diminishes, then that can be that person's cut-off point for "past". Also, "past" is sometimes a matter of how much someone can recall and for how long he recalls it.

Yet Another Saying Comes To Mind

When considering what, exactly. "The Past" is, I thought of how another saying could kind of apply to the past: "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder." Plain and simple, depending on what "past" someone has in mind, there are some things that are "from the past" that are positive things - things worth trying to preserve or maybe even bring back. Some positive things have stood the test of time, of course. Unfortunately, so have any number of negative things.

Sometimes something thought of today as "from the present" is really nothing more than a matter of something "from the past" that has stood the test of time and been re-packaged into something that looks like it's "from today", rather than the past.

For any number of reasons, and for any number of individuals or groups of people, "The Past" truly is in the eye of the beholder.

And, speaking of in-the-eye-of- the beholder, so are words like "clinging" (and particularly, perhaps, "illogical").

While it's certainly true that there is such a thing as "clinging illogically" to some things of the past, not all instances of someone's wishing to preserve something from the past are illogical. While "clinging illogically" can be a matter of out-and-out ignorance, or even one or another kind of character/personality flaw (or even mental illness); a wish to present SOME things from the past can also be a matter of wanting to preserve (or get back) something that has been associated with the past by people who don't understand the very valid and logical importance of aiming to preserve it.

"Beholders" come in all ages and from any number of different cultures, groups, and mindsets.

A Look At The Word, "Clinging"

"Clinging", as word and by itself, doesn't have a negative meaning. Let's face it: When it's used with " the past" it is coming from a place, mind and/or heart of judgment/assessment. And, when used with " the past" that place, mind and/or heart that is doing the judging or assessing most often is not seeing or portraying (even if only to oneself) the person who appears to be "clinging to the past" in a favorable light. Maybe it's appropriate to judge some "clinging to the past" in a negative light. It isn't always.

Based on the wording of the question that inspired this Hub, I think it's pretty clear that the asker of the question had in mind negative and destructive things of the past. This is not a unique or unusual question, however; and so often when someone asks it (or some version of it in slightly differently wording) the asker has chosen to use "clinging" (or "illogical") based on his own idea about what is worth preserving from one kind of past or another as a way ot expressing his prejudice against whatever it is from a past (or "The Past" or someone's past) that someone else has just not allowed to be buried or forgotten.

Here's where the choice of the word, "clinging", should bring the asker of the question a little more under scrutiny if for no reason other than his choice to use "clinging", rather than a more neutral and less judgmental word. I'm not saying that when some outrageously horrible and/or cruel and/or ignorant thing of the past is what someone "wants to preserve" there shouldn't be judgment or assessment (or use of a word like "clinging").

From an objective standpoint, however, there are plenty of times when the "clinging to the past" kind of question or issue is not a matter of someone's trying to preserve something from the past that was outrageously horrible, cruel and/or ignorant. Sometimes it's a matter of the person who sees "clinging to past" not understanding the logic to valuing some things from the past (often because that person doesn't have the information required to come up with the best logic); or because that person has the kind of arrogance that allows him to deem what is valuable or worth preserving not because of any logical reasoning at all, but simply because that person has deemed himself deemer-of-what-is-worth-preserving.

Sometimes The Past Just Makes Someone Too Uncomfortable

Sometimes The Past Just Makes Someone Too Uncomfortable

Whether it's a matter of one individual or a group of individuals and whether's it's a big-picture matter of small-picture matter; the present, as I said, hasn't just magically come out of puff smoke. Everything that exists in the present has been built on any number of building blocks of the past. Yes, there are times or situations when some of those foundation-level building blocks really aren't relefvant to one matter-at-hand or another. Then again, there are times or situations when some of those building blocks of the past are rotten. It's often far too late to even think of removing those rotten building blocks from the past. Nobody likes looking at them.

I suppose, depending on far back in any past some of those rotten blocks are, how uncomfortable they make anyone may depend on the degree to which those blocks touched someone's own life and/or present.

It's easy to wash one's hands of something that went on, say, hundreds of years ago, or before someone was born. It's not so easy to wash one hands of, or bury, those rotten blocks that appeared in the picture within our lifetime (or in some cases, within our own lives or family's lives).

Things like guilt, anger, the wish for truth or justice are things that tend to linger more around those rotten blocks that aren't quite as far back in the past as either someone wishes they were or else as they might seem to those who don't know any better.

Going back to the saying, "One man's trash is another man's treasure"...

Sometimes, or in some instances/matters; one's man's past isn't past at all and is, instead, one, long, present. It's not always possible to go far back into the past and replace or remove so many of those rotten building blocks. The ones that remain within our reach.and view are another matter.


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    • timorous profile image

      Tim Nichol 

      4 years ago from Me to You

      I know what you mean, Lisa. Everyone's life experience (and their estimation of its meaning and value), is shaped by the beliefs they have accumulated over their lifetime. These initially came from parents, teachers, friends, acquaintances, and the media. Some of these are actually false beliefs that are perpetuated without giving them a second thought.

      They act as filters we use to assess what we've experienced, as well as any new ideas that we come across. Since everyone has a unique life experience, these filters create an equally unique view of the world. So, you could get 6 people who lived through the same experience, and saw exactly the same thing, but if you were to ask them (many years later) what happened, you'd get varying accounts of 'the truth'. They would each insist that their version is the truth, and for them, it would be. That wouldn't stop them arguing about it though...

      Yes, a few of us do have clarity of thought throughout our lives. I include myself in this group, and it seems you do as well. I think we're the minority though. Most people have way too many extraneous thoughts going on in their minds, which they have no control of. This is the ego filling in the spaces when you're not present.

      If you don't have control of your mind , then your life happens by accident or chance, and you're depending on luck. On the other hand, it is entirely possible to acquire a very controlled state of 'correct thinking', and enjoy a happy, stress-free life, simply by choosing it. I'm not at liberty to promote a certain book that turned my life around, but this book is the real deal. It gets you to think 'on purpose', and rid yourself of all fears, worries, resentment, regret..all that unneccesary baggage..forever.

    • Lisa HW profile imageAUTHOR

      Lisa HW 

      4 years ago from Massachusetts

      timourous, thank you for your thoughtful contribution here. Your comments do seem to come from the "angle" of addressing the matter of someone actually "clinging to the past" (in a "less than ideal way", if not an extremely unhealthy way. I think, assuming that someone doesn't have at least some degree of memory loss; the problem of not recalling the past with clarity is most often a matter of how old someone was at the time any given "past" took place. Someone who was a very young child a) may have understood the whole picture at the time anyway, and b) may be more at risk of losing some of the details of that picture as they get older (that is, of course, if those details were not so memorable that they may be blurred among a larger picture. There are some events that someone who was, say, a preschooler will recall clearly forever.

      There was a brief time when, after a surgery and not long before she died, my mother was heavily medicated and kept saying she needed to call her husband (my father, who had been dead for years). THAT kind of "living in the past" (even though it was the medication and a short-term thing for her) is one thing. With things that have gone on once we were old enough to know the whole picture, I don't think I can possibly be the only one who has a very, very, clear picture of what went on in my past. Once someone is old enough to sort out "what I know for a fact" from "what I wonder/suspect/think but can't possibly know for sure (because I can only know what I, myself, have experienced/seen for myself); most people (maybe not most? Not sure...) we know how to sort out what we know of our own past from what we weren't positive about or couldn't have known about because we didn't have the information needed. I think the person who is a clear enough thinker to know not to jump to conclusions based on information he can't possible have also knows how to perceive his present (and eventual past) clearly.

      I'd refer again to, say, the elderly widow/widower whose spouse has been gone for awhile. If that person is talking with someone younger about, say, being married/getting married, the way he would related to the younger person might be to draw from his own experience (even while recognizing that it was a different generation and time that he was in the position of experiencing whatever "being-married" issue is the topic of conversation.

      Also, too, as people get older and go through life changes there can be the tendency of others (either those who "were there" in that past or those who weren't) to either forget or just not-know the part of the older person who remains the same as ever but who is in circumstances that don't make that "same-person-as-ever" so obvious.

      I'm not sure if this is most often mainly "a woman thing" or "a mother thing" or "a parent thing" or just a "more birthdays" thing; but it is entirely possible to have a whole lot "information"/thoughts from a whole lot of one's life in one's "mental files" and only "pulling out information" from those "files" if/when, say, a conversation or some other circumstances calls for it.

      I have no doubt that if someone were to go through a lot of the stuff I've written among my "free-time" writing, it could appear to someone who doesn't know better that I've dug out stuff from ancient history and spent a whole lot of time writing about it. The person who may read some of those things today may not realize that this stuff is "junk" to me - stuff I can whip up out of those "past" files if/when I want/need to write something that's easy to write and off the top-of-my-head.

      I don't know.... I still think that a huge percentage of what so many people think is "clinging to the past" is really a matter of so many people not understanding where the other person is coming from (which may be as simple as using one's own frame-of-reference as a way of trying to relate, for example). :/

    • timorous profile image

      Tim Nichol 

      4 years ago from Me to You

      Nice article, Lisa. You're quite right about judging/assessing. The trouble is, we seem to do this unconsciously..not so much to judge, but to wonder why other people seem to have a proclivity for repeatedly re-living past events, or preferring a past they imagine to be better than their present.

      One thing is irrefutable though..the past IS the past, no matter how far back you want to go. You can't go back there (apart from remembering the present), you can't change any aspect of it at all. Besides, memory is unreliable. There is a tendency to color our past in various ways, which may not agree with the truth.

      However, the ego has its wily ways, always wanting to keep you where you are..where it is 'comfortable'. Some people do not want to 'move on' because they fear the unknown. Strange as it may seem, some people hold on to what many might consider a miserable existence, simply because it's something they know, even though it may not, in any true sense, be comfortable.

      The way to come to terms with anything unpleasant from the past, is to completely accept it for what it is, and not resist it in any way. By accepting, I don't mean trying to convince yourself that even the worst thing in your past was 'ok'. It's simply avoiding actively resisting it. This is the real problem. Observe what your mind/ego is trying to hold onto. Don't judge or fight what it's doing..just observe. Eventually, your resistance to letting it go, will dissolve, and it will no longer be of any benefit to you.

      The problem with most people is, their minds are not in the present too much of the time. They have dozens of thoughts going on, most of them based on the past or the future. This is why they have problems, or are unhappy. Nothing in this world has any intrinsic meaning or importance. Thus, we've always had a choice of how we feel about anything that we experience. Many people simply let their ego put a label what they experience, rather than just letting things be and accepting what is.

      If you are predominantly present, you can't have a problem. It's also the only place you can be truly happy.

    • Dr Billy Kidd profile image

      Dr Billy Kidd 

      4 years ago from Sydney, Australia

      "I Just Had to Let It Go" -- John Lennon

    • Lisa HW profile imageAUTHOR

      Lisa HW 

      4 years ago from Massachusetts

      MT, I actually think, maybe (and I could be wrong), that the person had in mind something along the lines of what has recently been in the news - things like the people who don't want to remove the Confederate Flag from one place or another versus those who do. Or, maybe, something like people who think all was better in, say, the fifties and sixties with the whole stay-at-home kind of thing; versus those who know that all wasn't all that great back then and that things are better for women today. "Clinging to the past" covers a whole lot of "assessing of other people"; and so much of the time, regardless of who is being assesssed/judged, it's just a matter of someone doesn't understand well enough what someone else is actually saying or where s/he is coming from.

      I just REALLY think it's a phrase that ought to be reserved for psychiatrists/psychologists who are dealing with one patient/client or another. It's too carelessly and too often thrown around when that kind of assessing/judging someone else isn't what someone is qualified to do. It's one thing if it's one, minor, issue (like someone's parent saying things were better before smart phones existed but not really thinking the whole past was better in general. It's another when someone says, "I'm worried about Grandma. She's clinging to the past again."

    • Lisa HW profile imageAUTHOR

      Lisa HW 

      4 years ago from Massachusetts

      Glen, thanks. I don't disagree with your points. I just don't, for the most part, like the phrase "clinging to the past" at all. True, there are people who, for example, say things like, "The world was a better place before computers ever existed". Without a "whole thing" about THAT kind of clinging to the past, the point is that those people do exist and say stuff like that.

      Other than that, though, I don't think the words "clinging to the past" should be used by anyone but a psychiatrist when labeling someone's behavior/thinking. Too often, what someone doesn't understand about someone else (for example, what a younger person doesn't understand about an older one - and especially a very elderly one); can make it seem to, say, the younger one that the older one is clinging to the past (when the whole picture, perspective, frame-of-reference, reasons for making one reference or another, or just reasons for doing/saying some things just aren't "within reach" of that younger person. And the "older/younger" thing is only one example.

      Sometimes, too, people may appear and sound as if they're "living in the present", but they operate from a place of the past. An example: The parent of grown kids who hasn't completely allowed the relationship to grow and change in the ways that it should (without doing a "baby/bathwater" thing at the same time). Or, grown kids who still think they're parent is out to stop them from doing something the parent didn't want them to do back when the kid was a teenager. People can look, sound, and seem super-up-to-date and "present". Yet, the "clinging to the past" is so deep that nobody sees it. BUT, let some 80-year-old widow/widower refer to the deceased spouse who was such a part of that person's life for decades.... There's often someone who gets squirmy about it and thinks Grandma/Grandpa shouldn't be "bringing up the past" so often (if at all). My comments here aren't even really directed as yours. I guess I'm just taking advantage of the opportunity to "sound off" a little more outside the "confines" of the original Hub.

    • Minnetonka Twin profile image

      Linda Rogers 

      4 years ago from Minnesota

      Clinging to the past has many reasons. I agree with Glenn that some things from the past are nice to remember. I also agree that many hold on to bad memories because we can't just erase our past and experiences. Working on hardships of the past can be very healing; whether or not in therapy or other ways. I wonder if the person who wrote the question was talking about people that 'seem' to hold onto negative past events and seem stuck-in reality, it's possible to work through negative past experiences and get unstuck.

    • Glenn Stok profile image

      Glenn Stok 

      4 years ago from Long Island, NY

      You made some interesting points about why people sometimes cling to the past. It makes sense that positive memories are worthwhile holding onto.

      One thing I can add about why people hold onto negative memories is that when one has unresolved issues it's hard to let go.

      Many times when people find themselves thinking about troubling past events, the only way to forget about it and put it away in their mind, is by finding some way to resolve what's bothering them about it.


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