Writer and Philosopher George Santayana is attributed with one of the most famous insights about progress, change and retained experience. He stated, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
His famous quote has been repeated, tweaked and challenged on numerous occasions over the years, and it’s one of those often-referenced phrases by numerous people, famous and non-famous alike. One of the most famous challenges to the quote’s logic came from Socialist and novelist Kurt Vonnegut where he stated, “I’ve got news for Mr. Santayana- we’re doomed to repeat the past no matter what. That’s what it is to be alive.”
Whether Mr. Vonnegut is correct or not, you must consider the importance of learning from the past. If we cannot remember the lessons we learned, or worse yet, if we ignore those lessons, then it likely puts us in a position to learn those mistakes again. Why re-learn lessons that are already learned? Why go through havoc when havoc already taught us what we could’ve avoided in the first place? Why learn from our mistakes, and then subject ourselves to the same lessons? That doesn’t seem too logical to me. It certainly doesn’t make sense when it comes to addiction.
I don’t agree with Mr. Vonnegut. I believe that, “to be alive” as he put it is to live a life where I don’t have to learn the same lessons over and repeatedly. This concept has presented itself to me in more prevalent ways over the past few months. As America’s addiction pandemic worsens and the societal cost increases, I see more and more people that have amassed years in recovery from addiction lose their life to a relapse. Many people are left puzzled, completely devastated, asking the question, “Why?” Relapse after years of recovery just doesn’t make sense to me and the only answer I’ve been able to come up with is that people in recovery from Addiction fail to remember the horrors of that addiction, and the relapse is no longer a lesson. I call it “Addiction Amnesia” – forgetting the horrors of addiction and relapsing in that addiction. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” In today’s pandemic, that relapse increasingly means DEATH!
My third grade teacher once told me that, “there was no education in the second kick of a mule”. I didn’t understand the saying at the time, but years later, it came back to me with full understanding. She was a teacher, but she was the wife of a farmer. They had a big farm with lots of animals and they had a few mules. When you are around a mule, you learn pretty quickly where you should and should not stand. Standing directly behind that mule is often a bad place to be. When that mule kicks you with his hind leg, it is a very painful experience. If after that, you get kicked again, there’s no new education. You just didn’t learn anything the first time.
That advice has always stuck with me through my adult life. It has sometimes come up in my mind as a reflection after “getting kicked” a second time in life. Making the same mistake repeatedly really makes little sense. As a conscious, educated adult, I shouldn’t have to learn the same lesson multiple times. In today’s addiction pandemic, there are a plethora of people who profess to understand addiction, and further yet, claim to understand how to solve it. Relapse is one of those phenomenons where many people weigh in to try to explain why it happens, and how to prevent it from happening again. Synthetic chemicals and fentanyl are changing the outcome of much of the relapse repetition because more and more of the relapses taking place in America are literally ending people’s lives. More and more people are literally losing any possible second chance to come back from a relapse. The expression, “One more time” is starting to take literal hold and people die from that one more time. We must understand that to prevent ourselves from losing our lives, we can no longer accept this new-age trend that relapse is part of recovery. It doesn’t have to be, and in this day and age, it can’t be. A relapse might be the end of not only our recovery, but our life.
“Addiction Amnesia” can be deadly. We must remember the horrors and downside of addiction and never forget the lessons of that stage in our lives. We can never forget what we put ourselves through and what we put our families through. We can never forget what we lost, and in our recovery, what we gained.
Many people live by the adage, “Forget the past, don’t worry about the future, live in the present”. While I embrace the premise of the saying, I don’t believe it applies to every aspect of life, especially recovery. Far too many of us live life defined by the choices we made in the past, by our addiction. This shouldn’t be the case. Each new day presents opportunity to become a new person on a new road destined for a new future. But completely forgetting the past is a huge mistake.
When you simply forget the past, you miss out on its fullest potential. I believe you forget the understanding of your strength and the respect of your weaknesses. I believe we lose sight of the purpose we have found and the causes we’ve embraced through our struggles. I believe we forget those environments that threaten us and the toxicity of the relationships which brought us harm. I believe we forget the temptations that trip us and the pursuits that distracted us. I believe we return to the habits that harmed us if we fail to remember them.
In recovery, we cannot forget the past, we must learn from it. We can learn from it by asking the right questions. There are life-giving lessons we can learn from the lessons of our past. We can never define ourselves by our past, but it would be very sad, and possibly deadly, to forget our past completely when it offers so much potential for our life, and our future.
Michael DeLeon is the Director and Producer of the films” Kids Are Dying”, “An American Epidemic”, “MarijuanaX”, and “Road to recovery”. His fifth documentary will be released in 2018 called, “Higher Power”. His memoir, “Chasing Detours will also be released in 2018. Michael is the founder of Steered Straight Inc. a nationally-recognized educational program and a national advocacy organization called, “recovery Army”.