Archives for posts with tag: past

As I mentioned in my last post, I let my home office turn into black-hole during my cancer treatment, and it stayed that way until I cleaned it a couple of weeks ago. I found that is was a bit of an archeological site. Everything my former cat, Ollie, had knocked off of the desk onto the floor and then batted way underneath, were still there. Ollie died shortly after I began cancer treatment, coincidentally from metastatic cancer. I thought of the fact that he’d touched the pen caps, binder clips, Post-it notes, and push pins. I thought fondly of him, but I didn’t have trouble getting rid of the pieces that were garbage and putting the rest of it away.

At the bottom of a pile on my desk, I found the folder in which I kept my cancer paperwork, labelled, “Cancer 2012”.



I opened the cover and saw a set of post-surgical instructions. I also saw Explanation of Benefits forms from my insurance. A year ago I many have put it back on the top of my desk thinking I might “need” it some day. That day, however, I threw it into the recycle bin and made a plan to write about it, as I am doing right now.

Another thing I found was the tote bag I was given by the Swedish Cancer Institute with their name and logo on the side. For the first several months of treatment, I carried a binder, also provided by Swedish, containing all of my pathology and blood work reports separated with tab folders, “Initial diagnosis”, “Lumpectomy #1”, “Lumpectomy #2”, “Mastectomy”, “Oncology reports”, etc. I called it, “my big bag of cancer.”  Eventually, I stopped using the bag but continued to use the binder, which was extremely helpful in keeping my treatment organized and making some kind of sense. It was actually a very handy reference guide to take with me to my appointments.

I looked at the bag and considered getting rid of it. I have a ridiculous number of tote bags due my past as an academic researcher. I did a lot of conference travel and typically, the conference catalog and registration materials are put in a tote bag. Some of them are very nice, very sturdy, and have, as a result, never worn out. Clearly, I did not need my cancer bag in order to lug stuff around. Honestly, I don’t need most of them. They just sit around, “just in case” I need them in the future.

However, one of the first thoughts to come to mind when I saw it was a visual memory of my wonderful breast surgeon, Dr. Beatty, carrying a tote bag just like mine, holding the things he needed for that day. He was the first of my many physicians with whom I developed a doctor-patient relationship. He and his staff were wonderful. I felt so taken care of when I went to his office.

The image of being held, not as an embrace, but as being supported and cared for came to mind. I decided that “my big bag of cancer” is a holder of good things. For now, I am keeping it. Next year, who knows?

I am amazed at the significance that objects have taken on through their association with my cancer treatment. Some of the associations are comforting. Some of them are painful. All of them are part of the truth of my experience, an experience that continues to evolve over time. Experience changes; at times, it changes a lot. But the past, the future, and the present all hold their truths and are all part of me. In my mind, this is the string that holds my life together and gives me great comfort.


We all move forward through time because that is the nature of time; it progresses. Due to our brain structure, we are also able to travel back in time through memory. And based on our memories, whether they are biased, fading, or correct, we think about them as well as our current experience to make predictions about the future. These predictions often inform our current behavior.

Thus, we live in the past, the present, and the future. This makes life rich, but it also makes it complicated. We get all kinds of messages about which time is the best. “Live in the moment!” “Keep your eye on the prize!”

Getting stuck in any one time can cause a lot of problems, though. For example, depressed thoughts and feelings, for example, come in part from viewing today’s misery as being a constant. The past was always bad and the future will be bad. Past joys and the possibility of joy in the future are buried under the weight of today’s despair. Impulsive behavior comes from living too much in the moment. I want this now. I feel this now. The past doesn’t matter and the future only matters in like of getting the goal I want right now, accomplished.Later, after the negative consequences come crashing down, impulsive behaviors result in regret and guilt about the past. And anxiety often comes from living in the future of “what-if’s” and “what might be”.

One of the things I have noticed in my mindfulness practice, is that I am better able to integrate my past, present, and future. I observe the present and recollect the past. I use information from both of these times to inform the plans for my future. Being able to travel through the time of my own life is a fascination to me. I don’t always travel at the right time or to the right place. But I think I am getting better at it, more frequently feeling in more of some kind of balance.

Memory makes life complicated. But without it, we would always live in the present moment. And that, my friends, would be although a simple way to live, a very dependent, sometimes incredibly distressing way to live. There’s no sophisticated learning without memory. There are no moments of beautiful nostalgia. No dreams for the future and no appreciation for the way that people and their relationships unfold over time. I could go on and on.

A life with just one time is like a story without a beginning or an end, just the middle. And the middle is the crisis, as I recall, the problem that needs to be solved. I want to continue understanding the grand narrative of my life. It has many beginnings, middles, and ends. My life has many stories, some unfolding as we speak, and they are all part of who I am and how I connect with the rest of life.

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George Lakoff

George Lakoff has retired as Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. He is now Director of the Center for the Neural Mind & Society (


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