What’s wrong with looking back?
By: Larry McGehee
When morning dawned, the angels urged Lot, saying, ‘Arise, take your wife and two daughters who are here, lest you be consumed in the punishment of the city . . . . Then the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire . . . . But Lot’s wife behind him looked back, and she became a pillar of salt.
Donald Davidson, one of Nashville’s Fugitive poets, has the patriarch narrator in “Sanctuary” warn his heirs to flee to the mountains of western Carolina in times of trouble as their ancestors did during the Revolution and the Civil War. The old man warns, as did the two angels to Lot, “Do not look back. You can see your roof afire / When you reach high ground. Yet do not look. / Do not turn. Do not look back. / Go further on. Go high. Go deep.” Satchel Page also warned us, “Don’t look back; someone may be gaining on you.”
Such shared warnings from three sources read like the Surgeon General’s warning on cigarette packs or FDA warnings on packages of sugar substitute.
But why not? Why not look back? Why should looking back be harmful?
Apparently Lot’s wife wasn’t eager to give up the luxuries and riotous living for which Sodom has become a symbol forever. Looking back in longing, Lot’s wife was held captive by her past.
A pillar of salt isn’t likely to move forward at all (unless some passing cows lick it and carry it off slowly lick by lick). We can indeed become prisoners of our memories and of the status quo. What the story of Abraham’s kinsman, Lot, seemed to be saying was that a wandering people always got into trouble wherever they stopped and stood still. The desert and the mountains were better for the souls of nomads than were cities. Lot himself proved that when he talked the angels into letting him flee to the little town of Zoar instead of into the mountains. In Zoar his daughters got him into deep trouble.
This story of Lot;’s salty wife anticipates the fate of the Hebrew wanderers once they come to Egypt. They go there under the protection and benevolence of one of their own, Joseph. But by the time of Moses, they are slaves. They finally leave, and only those who disobediently look back cause problems?-worshiping golden calves, leading revolts against Moses, breaking the new Ten Commandments?-during the long Exodus before they settle in Canaan.
Often the past seems temptingly more secure or more self?satisfying. Nostalgia blots out the bad and gives us an illusion of good times and golden ages to which we wish to return. Worshiping the past makes a false god of it, a barrier to taking care of the present. The world over which humankind is given dominion, to act as stewards and caretakers, is the world of Now. Past and Future alike will take care of themselves, if we take care of the Present.
And yet, the whole Hebrew saga and the Israelite story that followed it, depended upon looking backward. Memory was the mechanism for reminding Israel whence it had come and why. Memory was the means of motivation for a theocracy based upon a sense of God acting in human lives and history. Looking backward was the device for responding responsibly to past acts of divine presence and for assuming responsibility for shaping things in the present.
“Remember, 0 Israel,” the scriptures say over and over. “Remember thy Creator, now in the days of thy youth,” says the author of Ecclesiastes. Faith and good works are nothing without looking backward.
“Don’t look back” is not a prohibition, but a warning. If we look back in anger or in lust, we run a risk of being imprisoned in self?pity, in inflexibility, in living in wrong times, in ignoring attention to present?day responsibilities. That seems to be the real message Lot’s wife left standing for us.
We have seen that happen in our own history. For a whole century after the Civil War, the South often spent more time looking back and glorifying and embroidering an imaginary magnolia?and?moonlight past, a Lost Cause, than in getting the region on its feet. The region looked back, because it couldn’t see any good ahead. It made a balm of selective memories, and became addicted to it.
We have to keep on going; standing still is what is deadly to any person or any polity. We are not yet out of the desert of past southern times, but perhaps we have reached a plateau where we can at least look back and see something good rising phoenix?like from the smoke of the southern past or the debris of our personal trials.
Larry McGehee, professor-emeritus at Wofford College, may be reached by e-mail at email@example.com
Published in The Messenger 4.28.08