Life and Literature – Elizabeth Bennett on making peace with your past
“Think only of the past as its remembrance gives you pleasure.”
― Elizabeth Bennett, Pride and Prejudice
At first blush, Miss Bennett’s words evoke a woman whose life experiences consist of high teas, social calls and dress fittings. Her apparent attitude conveys the thoughts of someone who either hasn’t lived long enough to have a past, or of someone in flat-out denial. If either situation were the case, then this blogged quote wouldn’t be worth its pixels.
Dig a little deeper, though, and we begin to see glimpses of complex thought. For context, the quote prior to this reads, “You must learn some of my philosophy.” This hints at time and thought spent on, well, thoughts. Miss Bennett has cultivated a comprehensive outlook on life. She’s thought these words through, and she stands behind them.
If you’ve read Pride and Prejudice (and if you haven’t, you should), then you know Elizabeth Bennett is no delicate debutante. She’s witty, charming and self-deprecating. She’s fiercely observant, seen a good deal of life, and finds much of her culture superfluous and silly.
So we begin to understand that Miss Bennett is neither naive nor in denial, and we can begin to see where she’s coming from in suggesting we only remember the good things.
Life can be hard. Parents fall ill. Children rebel. Spouses frustrate. People judge. We all have the capacity to make bad choices (and we do) and, if we somehow manage not to botch up anything big, then we can count on circumstances beyond our control to give us the proverbial smack-down.
We can’t erase or ignore these things, so what then does Miss Bennett mean, exactly?
You may have heard it a gazillion times and set to music:
Let it go.
Friends betray us. Parents screw up. We fail, we embarrass ourselves, and we’ve had our hearts broken. Life will get the best of us from time to time, and Miss Bennett is no stranger to this. Is she suggesting we simply ignore the bad and remember the good?
No. “Think only of the past as its remembrance gives you pleasure.“ Miss Bennett can say this because she’s done the work. I don’t mean “The Work,” as in the work of therapy, though that absolutely has its place.
I mean the work of reflection. Remembering with full clarity that time you walked into a glass wall at your new job and dropped your handful of change on the ceramic tile just as the sales manager called an all-staff meeting (this never happened to me. It’s just, um, a made-up example). It means accepting it and forgiving your clumsy self – maybe even laughing.
I mean sifting through the decades-long friendship that ended badly, and saving and savoring the good and forgiving the bad.
I mean asking the hard questions. “Why would you swear that you loved me, then hurt me so terribly?” I mean believing and accepting the simple, painful truth when he says, “because I’m broken.”
Acknowledge, accept, let go, repeat.
Whether it’s through a journal, prayer, meditation, prayers, “me time”, quiet reflection, we all have a responsibility to manage the emotional clutter that, if we’re not careful, morphs into baggage.
Consider it emotional maintenance.
In one succinct sentence and from across more than a century, Miss Bennett offers us wisdom – and hope. She tells us we don’t have to be mired in sadness or regret or anger. If we do the inner work necessary to forgive (both ourselves and others) and to let go, then we, too, may think only of the past as its remembrance brings us pleasure.
Not because we’ve swept the pain under the rug, but because we’ve laid it to rest.