I don’t feel guilty about slavery. I don’t feel guilty about the fate of Native Americans. In fact, I don’t feel guilty about anything that happened prior to the date of my birth.
I never owned a slave or desired to, nor did I ever shoot an Indian and steal his land. I say this because there are a lot of special-interest groups trying to lay guilt trips on Americans of European ancestry. That is nothing more than a con game. All we inherit from our ancestors are genes.
The past happened as it happened, and there is nothing we can do about it. The Persian poet Omar Khayyam had it right when he said, "The moving finger writes; and, having writ, moves on: nor all your piety nor wit shall lure it back to cancel half a line, nor all your tears wash out a word of it."
People who never owned slaves who apologize to people who were never slaves only succeed in making public fools of themselves. Our ancestors don’t give half a cow pie what we think of them. People who were never slaves and want people who never owned slaves to pay them money are just trying to pull off a con job. Good luck if they can find somebody stupid enough to fall for it.
We can learn from the past, but that’s it. We can’t change it. We can’t reproduce it. Nor are we responsible for it or for anything that was done or not done in the past. We can read stories about it and look at relics that have survived, but the past and all the people who inhabited it are gone forever.
It might help matters if people would remember that from the moment they are conceived, they are under a death sentence. Life is short, shorter for some than for others. If people want to spend the only life they will ever have moaning and groaning and complaining about the past, then be my guest. The rest of us, in the immortal words of Gus McCrae in Lonesome Dove, are going on to Montana.
This life, right here and right now, is all you’re going to get. You’d better smell the roses while you can, because you and the roses will disappear sooner than you might think. All that junk, all those honors and awards you worked for, will be left behind for the living to pick over and discard. You will be forgotten, as indeed we all will. Therefore, if you aren’t enjoying what you’re doing, then don’t do it.
Some Americans even make a project out of recreation. I watched a neighbor playing tennis once, and whenever he made a bad shot, which was often, he grimaced and cursed. Hey, tennis is a game, and if it’s not fun, don’t play it. The few games of golf I played, I had a great time, because it didn’t bother me a bit that my score was in triple digits. It was the doing, not the tallying, that I enjoyed.
The old Japanese samurai, when first awaking, would imagine his death that very day. It might sound morbid, but it heightened his enjoyment of the day, since he was reminded that it could be his last. Furthermore, having reconciled himself to death, he didn’t fear it.
The past, which no longer exists, can nevertheless be a drag if people allow it to be. Sometimes we Southerners are accused of wanting to re-fight the War for Southern Independence. Actually, we don’t. Losing once was enough. But we will honor our Confederate ancestors whether anybody likes it or not. We honor them for their bravery and devotion to duty. But we live in the present, not the past.
The Buddhists have it right that neither the past nor the future exists. We spend our entire lives living in one present moment after another. It’s a very bad idea to waste any of those moments dwelling on what’s already happened and can’t be changed or, for that matter, worrying about what may or may not happen down the road.
Enjoy the moment. Let the dead converse with the dead. We have the living for our companions — at least for a little while.
Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years.