Reopening old wounds only brings fresh hurt to victims
For the past 30 years on and off, I’ve kept a diary.
I’m like a modern-day Samuel Pepys... if he had spent less time documenting major events such as the Great Fire of London and more time gurning about wanting to lose weight and fancying boys who didn’t fancy him back.
Anyway, spurred by the good humour of Christmas (and a several glasses of Buck’s Fizz), I decided this year to revisit my musings from bygone days and treat my family to a few excerpts of Christmas past.
“It has to be said that the day did not get off to a great start,” I read, plunging into 1999.
“Mum (with whom I had been rowing for the last three days) was frosty with me all day after I feigned sleep this morning to get out of church.”
“What?” My mother (present day) suddenly sat up, startled from her post-turkey bliss. “I don’t remember this. Why were we rowing?”
I read on only to find more tales of tears and recriminations.
“But I thought we always got on well,” said mum, clearly rattled.
“We did, we do... I’m sure 1998 was better,” I said sooothingly, quickly closing the book on ‘99 and lifting out the previous year. “5:42pm December 25: Just had a huge fight with mum after breaking a minuscule bit off a handle on an old saucepan...” Ho, ho... oh dear.
The ghost of Christmas past seemed to be leaving its icy imprint on our Christmas present — and it wasn’t half as entertaining as I’d hoped.
When you open a door on the past, you really have to be careful about what comes out of it, don’t you?
What do we hope that turning our gaze backwards will achieve?
Will it bring a brief moment of entertainment or illumination? A lesson that can better inform how we live today? Or is it just a misguided exercise that can only ever open old wounds and bring fresh hurt? I’m not putting official state papers in quite the same boat as my hormone-infused teenage diaries, but when the vault was opened on some previously unseen documents this week, it did cause me to ponder some similar questions on the merits of dragging the past into the light.
There were plenty of revelations, from the discovery that Portadown pastors were grooming a new generation of Billy Wrights for “NI Jihad”, to the news that IRA prisoners were allowed to work on a Maze prison tunnel as a “form of occupational therapy”.
There was grim reading on how precarious the delivery of peace was, alongside more light-hearted documents, such as amusingly titled Middle-East Information Centre Telephone Handbook (Or How To Lie Convincingly).
Of course, there was a deluge of predictable secrets uncovered: arguments around the use of Stormont, the flying of flags and the marching of bands.
Yet even if it’s mostly been interesting reading, has any of it brought any real worth?
Surely the greatest value of the past is that we learn from it. The response to the state papers seemed less like an exercise in self-reflection and improvement and more one in reopening old wounds.
When you live in a place where the grievances of the past lie so close to the surface, easily ignited and harder to extinguish than a blaze at a metal recycling centre, do you really want to add fuel to that fire by bringing up forgotten or never-known woes?
After the frosty response to my readings on Christmas ’98, I was ready to put a match to the rest of my diaries, but then I remembered something.
A few years ago, I was thumbing through them when I came upon an incident in 1997 where I’d behaved badly towards a young man who was a friend and would-be suitor.
Undeterred by the fact that 20 years had passed, I messaged him on Facebook. “I’ve been reading over old diaries and I think I might have been a bit of a d*** to you one night in Paradise Lost in 1997. Sorry about that,” I wrote, not really expecting a response.
But one came. “I remember that night very well. I was very disappointed, but I’ve always been thick-skinned. Shows incredible character from you to mention after all this time and apologise. Many thanks. Hope you’re well.”
So, there you go. The past can be a power for good and teach us plenty, but unless we’re going to use it as an opportunity to be better or to deliver a long-overdue apology, perhaps it’s best to just keep the vault closed.