In the second act of Shakespeare’s play “The Tempest,” one of the characters make the following statement as part of a speech:
“We all were sea-swallow’d, though some cast again,
And by that destiny to perform an act
Whereof what’s past is prologue, what to come
In yours and my discharge .”
This is a profound speech, and the language might be a bit dense for many readers. That said, its meaning is straightforward enough. What Antonio (the character who is making the speech) is saying is while what is past is the prologue to all that we do in our lives, what we do with our lives is in our responsibility. We have no choice about what has come before us, but we do have the choice to reflect on and act wisely in the future despite whatever may have happened in our lives before this point. There is a great opportunity in this, but also a great amount of solemn reflection as well.
There are at least two purposes which in my own reading and experiences I have seen this particular quotation used, and both of them are interrelated in the course of my own life and experience. The first time I saw this particular quote outside of Shakespeare’s play was when I read a book about the military history profession that sought to demonstrate the value of a nuanced view of history for practitioners of the military arts. As I have already written recently about the military arts , I need not say too much more here except that for historians the fact that the past is prologue means that understanding the past is necessary to gain a context of the present and what people have to work with. A sophisticated view would include a look at physical as well as cultural factors that influence history and its contemporary use and abuse within a given society.
Yesterday I had the chance to attend a very excellent seminar on the subject of abuse, which is quite a daring subject to deal with in the Church of God context, and one that appeared to have touched an nerve, as I saw quite a lot of people I knew there, many of whom had surprising histories of their own. The history of people is in many ways not so different from the history of societies. Often the scope is smaller, but as a society is made up of a large number of people, each with their own personal and family histories that intersect with the larger culture that they are a part of, the larger history is made up of the more personal histories. It is not always an easy matter to reconstruct these personal histories, as not everyone leaves the kind of paper trail or digital trail left behind by elites or creative individuals of whatever social class. Nevertheless, it is an immensely rewarding thing to see where people come from and to help encourage them to live a better way.
In short, an understanding of history leads us into the intersection between what is done and cannot be rewritten in the past of our own lives as well as the larger history of mankind that has come before us and that shapes our lives in ways that are profound and often difficult to understand. Let us never lose sight of the fact that whatever our past, we all have the potential for a bright future based on the decisions that we make today, so that whatever is written in the pages of our past, we may find comfort and victory in the pages that have yet to be written. This world is full of many dark and tragic tales, some of which I know all too well. However, let us find the happy ending yet that makes everything else unworthy of being compared to the reward that we seek for ourselves and for others, so that we may all be happier than we deserve.