Wisdom from the Masters for the Care and Maintenance of the Soul
For years following the horrors he witnessed in combat during W.W. II, Robert B. Sherman lived as a prisoner of the past.
Robert B. Sherman (1925–2012) established a phenomenal career as a songwriter, screenwriter, and painter. He and his brother Richard M. Sherman wrote the iconic scores for Walt Disney films like Mary Poppins, The Jungle Book, Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, and many more.
But through it all, Robert B. Sherman lived as a prisoner of the past, unable to rid his troubled mind of flashbacks to scenes such as when his unit made their way through the battered wire gate of a Nazi extermination camp called Dachau. He describes the horrific experience in his autobiographical work entitled, “Moose.”
Our attention was fixed on the horrors we were witnessing … The specter of an open trench piled high with wasted bodies, the stench, the ovens filled with incompletely burned human bones. In half an hour, I saw enough to fill my nightmares for the remainder of my life.
The Oxford Dictionary renders the definition of remembering as “Bringing to one’s mind an awareness of (someone or something from the past).”
Remember derives from a late Latin word meaning ‘call to mind’ and ‘mindful.’
Ordinarily, the capacity to remember things serves us well. Whether a grocery list, appointment, or taking medications, the ability to remember plays an essential role in our everyday lives.
Recalling joyful events from our past brings us pleasure. But remembering is a two-edged sword. Memories of unpleasant or traumatic experiences may be hurtful and interfere with our ability to function well in our day-to-day activities.
Even though Robert B. Sherman, with his brother Richard, rose to the top of his profession as a songwriter, the trauma of his horrible combat experiences robbed him of the full enjoyment of his accomplishments.
Psychologist World, in an article entitled, “Emotions and Memory,” points to research showing that emotionally charged experiences create longer-lasting memories than ordinary events. For example, almost everyone remembers where they were and what they were doing during the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
Similarly, I vividly remember the announcement on Armed Forces Radio of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, November 22, 1963. Sitting on my Army bunk bed, I picked up a combat boot and slung it into a steel wall locker, leaving a crease in the door.
But these things, although imprinted permanently in one’s mind, do not create the long-lasting emotional pain engendered by devastating personal experiences. Painful memories can hold us as a prisoner of the past, haunting us day and night. Psychiatric practitioners use the term PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) to describe this anxiety disorder. Prolonged emotional responses such as fear, numbness, panic attacks, or depression characterize PTSD.
It should be no surprise that guilt and shame because of significant mistakes and failures in our lives rank high on the list of remembered things that create ongoing pain and unrest. But how do we forget? The short answer: We can’t. We can’t forget the past, erase it, or change it. Our only hope lies in alleviating the pain of remembered experiences that hold us captive. And we can’t do that on our own.
Psychiatry uses support groups as a method to help patients deal with past or ongoing troubles. Support groups allow people to share their personal experiences with others suffering from similar issues. Theoretically, sharing pain within a group generates empathy and understanding that leads to healing. While support groups may provide some relief, it’s only temporary, which is why they must repeat the same process again and again.
Confined to a hospital bed after being severely wounded, Robert B. Sherman encountered another wounded soldier who cursed his situation. After listening to the man’s complaint, Sherman muttered under his breath, “But my pain hurts me much more than your pain hurts me.” Sherman’s utterance illustrates the shortcoming of seeking release from suffering by sharing with others afflicted by the same malady.
“How can I help you, or you help me?” one might surmise. “We’re both in the same boat.”
The Apostle Paul knew well the inside of a Roman prison. But his incarceration caused him little grief compared to his agony as a prisoner of the past. After his spiritual rebirth, he remembered his former life as a ruthless tormentor of Christians. Listen to his testimony before Agrippa, the Roman King of Judaea, recorded in Acts 26:9-11.
I verily thought with myself, that I ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth.
Which thing I also did in Jerusalem: and many of the saints did I shut up in prison, having received authority from the chief priests; and when they were put to death, I gave my voice against them.
And I punished them oft in every synagogue, and compelled them to blaspheme; and being exceedingly mad against them, I persecuted them even unto strange cities.
Paul never forgot his past. “I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God” (1 Corinthians 15:9). But suddenly, on his way to Damascus, “breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord” (Acts 9:1), something happened that changed everything. He encountered the Christ (Acts 9:1-5).
The Son of God came to this world on a mission foreseen by the Prophet Isaiah. “To proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound” (Isaiah 61:1).
The captivity from which Christ set men free goes far beyond confinement behind iron bars. Christ flung open the prison gates for the likes of Paul, who suffered as a prisoner of his past. Christ brings sweet relief to those haunted by the mistakes, the failures, and the traumatic experiences that would otherwise imprison their soul for a lifetime. “If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed” (John 8:36).
Besides reigning over the present and the future, Christ is the Lord of the past. When He enters our life through the Holy Spirit, He releases us from the shackles of former things. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” (2 Corinthians 5:17 ESV). Christ opened the prison door of former things by taking all our pain, shame, torment, guilt, and failures—sin—upon Himself at Calvary and burying them in the tomb, once and forever.
Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. (Isaiah 53:4, 5)
One never forgets the troubles of the past. But, through finding forgiveness in Christ, they no longer imprison us. “Who is he that condemneth?” Paul asks. “It is Christ that died” (Romans 8:34). We can live unshackled by those things that once held us in bondage—things that condemned us—and follow Christ on a path to a brighter future.
When the Lord opened Paul’s eyes to this truth, he testified to the saints at Philippi that “this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14).
Satan, “the accuser of our brethren” (Revelation 12:10), makes it his business to dredge up our past and imprison us once again. But “forgetting” in the passage above derives from a Greek term meaning (1) to neglect; (2) to no longer care for; (3) to disregard something. In other words, declaring to those haunting memories, and all who might remind us of them, “You can no longer hold me as a prisoner of the past.” Christ has set me free.