Yesterday is yesterday

When I started school, among many things I didn’t understand was why my desk had a hole. It was a perfectly round hole, nearly three inches across, in the top right corner.

I didn’t know what that hole was for until, three years later, the teacher came to each of our 42 desks and placed a black cup into the hole. She filled each cup with ink, and laid a pen and paper on our desks. The pen wasn’t a ball-point or fountain pen, just a shaped wooden shaft with a stylus on the end. She told us to dip the stylus in the ink, and then write on the paper. The ink quickly ran out so after each short sentence we had to dip our pens in the ink again. Writing was slow, and very, very messy.

We practised with ink and stylus for a year, and then our suffering ended. Why? Because someone realised this was a complete waste of time because ball-point pens and fountain pens were common by then. There must have been virtually no-one who dipped a stylus-only pen in and out of a reservoir of ink. Those days were gone.

Two other glaring instances of ‘persevering when the day is past’ stand out.

Typewriters    Part of my training for journalism was typing. I practised the drills and learned to touch type. Every finger except the left thumb was used, and soon I had no need to look at the keyboard. It’s a skill I still use today.

But that skill tempted me into my last, longest and least pleasurable experience with a typewriter. I made the brave but foolish decision to type my own doctoral thesis. As well as being 436 pages long, each of which had to be letter perfect, there were two special difficulties: a) much of the argument involved New Testament Greek, so I had to type each page leaving spaces to handwrite Greek into the gaps; b) I decided to create footnotes which, with a typewriter, requires calculating in advance the number of lines needed for that page’s footnotes so you could stop the main text with exactly enough space for the footnotes. My worst ever page to type had only two lines of main text and over 40 lines of a footnote. I lost count how many times I retyped that page. Almost every page was typed at least three times, but some pages many more than that.

Every page was typed on a small, portable electric typewriter. It was important that the margins didn’t change so I glued their settings in place. That typewriter lasted just long enough for me to finish. What a relief!

And then – then! – I bought my first computer (an Apple IIe). If only earlier. If I’d had a word processor before typing the thesis it would have calculated automatically the space needed for each page’s footnotes and every error would have been corrected before printing out. But I had stuck with my faithful old typewriter and made my life very difficult.

Typewriter manufacturers fought the good fight to keep their products selling after computer word processors became affordable. They gave them small memories so the typist had a chance to correct a mis-typing before the keys struck the paper. And they developed ‘golf ball’ typewriters which had no keys, just a super-fast spinning ball which struck the paper with exactly the same force every time ridding the script of light and dark letters. But no innovation could save the typewriter. The more that manufacturers churned out typewriters the more money they lost. The days of the typewriter were over.

Digital photography    As I understand it a Kodak engineer invented a digital camera in 1975. But Kodak made its money selling film, so did nothing with the idea. Other firms developed digital photography, while Kodak still tried to sell film. The giant of a former era of photography filed for bankruptcy in 2012. Film cameras still exist but only for a niche market. Film’s days are gone.

Those two examples could be multiplied. Most of us are slow to recognise when big change is happening around us, and even when we do we’re slow to let go of what’s familiar.

I’ll set down four categories where we’re ‘guilty’ of that. Some concern what’s happening in the world around us but all of them also touch on our internal reactions to change.

1. When we see change but don’t realise its significance

That would be true for Kodak and typewriter manufacturers. Some have said Kodak’s leadership thought they were in the photographic film business whereas they were really in the imaging business. That mistake imprisoned them in doing what they’d always done. Something the same happened with typewriters. Their manufacturers thought all the public wanted was better typewriters, not recognising that the disruptive technology of word processors would make their products permanently obsolete.

We think their mistakes were glaring failures to recognise new needs and opportunities. But at the time it wouldn’t have seemed like that to the CEO of Kodak or a typewriter manufacturer, someone immersed for years in one line of business and thinking all they needed to do was improve the product and raise the marketing budget. And, with no expertise in digital cameras or word processors, it’s not so surprising they shied away from what they didn’t understand or think important.

Many shun what they don’t understand or doubt. It happens with viruses and vaccines. With being told to abandon our petrol or diesel cars. With giving up the office for working from home. With radical changes to diet to counter obesity, diabetes and heart disease. What disturbs us frightens us, and we may react by denying the need to change.

2. When we don’t recognise a goal is unachievable

It happens in sport, in entertainment, in politics, with those chasing career promotion or, sadly, with those pursuing a significant personal relationship.

For every top golfer who is winning millions on a professional tour, there are tens of thousands slogging away in near poverty but still hoping that one day they’ll break through. And thousands of musicians borrowing small fortunes to produce professional standard videos believing that’ll give them a break in the pop world. And politicians aiming to run the country, but never getting further than the lowest level of local council work. Also millions working all hours at great cost to family life and personal health to climb the corporate ladder but never getting there. And the many women and some men I’ve counselled who want companionship and probably marriage, to love and be loved, but year after year it doesn’t happen.

My pain for that last group is as nothing compared to the pain they feel. And I’d never counsel anyone to close down their feelings. But, for those in other categories, there is a case for a reality check and accepting the goal that drove them on will never be achieved.

Arthur reached very high levels in one of the major oil-related companies. The work had been super-demanding, but very financially rewarding. Soon after he passed his 50th birthday, Arthur told me that if you hadn’t reached the top by age 50 in his line of business you’d never get there. He knew now his career goal was out of reach. Soon after he was offered a ‘package’ to leave. Once that’s offered, staying isn’t really an option. He accepted the deal, retired, and filled his life with voluntary work that fulfilled him, and at last he was able to give time to his wife and family.

3. When we don’t see or accept that something is over

Two blogs ago (‘Values and friendship’) I described a day out in my early 20s with then girlfriend Kate. On long drives I realised I was having to think up subjects for us to talk about. That was stressful. I wrote: ‘Warning bells rang, and the relationship with Kate gradually came to an end’. That was true. But that gradual ending actually took six months. Those extra months were not good for either of us. We should have recognised reality and ended the relationship earlier.

Many small and large things in our lives won’t work out. The only shame in that is when we won’t let them go.

Here is a little ancient wisdom from the book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible:

There is a time for everything,
    a time to be born and a time to die,
    a time to plant and a time to uproot,
    a time to tear down and a time to build,
    a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
    a time to search and a time to give up

These are selected verses from a longer list in Ecclesiastes chapter 3. Their message is that we need wisdom to know when to start, and wisdom to know when to stop.

4. When we can’t let go of our past

This is different from the earlier subjects, because it focuses on our internal feelings.

With people I’ve counselled, two things are often said:

  • I can never be different
  • I can never forgive myself

The first of these – the thought they could never change – imprisoned some. Usually they believed they could never escape their background. Perhaps been abused physically and/or sexually as children. Perhaps developed damaging and dangerous habits related to smoking, drinking, drugs. Perhaps grew up in an economically challenged area, with no opportunity or expectation other than drudgery, hard work and an early grave. Or perhaps been raised in such a privileged environment that later on they couldn’t relate to anyone from any other background.

The challenge for these folk was believing – really believing – it was possible to be different. That the old was yesterday and the new is today and those ‘days’ won’t be the same.

Not for a moment did I ever suggest that was easy. And very few changed overnight, so my ‘yesterday’ and ‘today’ statement shouldn’t be taken literally. But a new beginning really is possible. I’ve seen it happen with people from their teens through middle age to old age. The grip of what controls us can be broken.

The second statement – that they can’t forgive themselves – is a curious one. Why curious? Because often the full version is: ‘I know God can forgive me, but I can never forgive myself’. The cheating spouse can’t let go of their guilt for such an enormous betrayal. Or the exam cheat is dogged by knowing they didn’t deserve their degree, their job, their salary. God says they’re forgiven, but they can’t accept it.

I’ve never been a priest (just as well since I have a wife and four children) but have acted in a priestly way for some tortured by their past failings. They’ve told me exactly what they did (confession) and how they don’t live like that now (repentance). I’ve been able to assure them of God’s forgiveness and tell them his will now is that they release their guilt burden and live with no sense of condemnation (restoration/renewal). God has cast their sins into the deepest sea and erected a sign saying ‘No fishing’. Truly ‘the old has gone, the new is here!’ (2 Corinthians 5:17) Not all have found peace, but, with help, many have.

For every person who ever breathed, there have been days which were good and days which were bad. But those days are gone now. I sometimes tell myself that past things have drifted down river and round a bend, and they’ll never flow upstream back to me. Today is a new day. A good day. And there are better things to do than grieve over my old typewriter, film camera, unfulfilled goals, or past sins. Yesterday is yesterday.