One of the tales that has always stayed with me from the “Sunday School of my childhood” is the story of “Sodom & Gomorrah”. Now, it would be easy to base this on the fact that I am gay, and that the story of Sodom is often used by fundamentalists to chastise gay people. But, that is not the case. Long before I knew for sure that I was gay, I knew about the story of Sodom.
More specifically, I knew about the story of Lot’s wife. It was a story that our Sunday School teachers would come back to, time and time again, and it was certainly the most haunting of the bible stories from that period of my life. I was fascinated by the story of this woman who was turned into a pillar of salt! I guess the story felt like it was straight out of 1001 Arabian Nights or Greek Mythology – two other delights from my childhood.
You might already be familiar with the story. In summary, it goes something like this.
God had instructed some angels to go and destroy the city of Sodom, because of their ‘wicked ways’. “…… the angels made sure Lot, his wife, and his two daughters left before the city was destroyed. As they fled, the angels warned them, “Escape for your life! Do not look behind you, and do not stay anywhere in the valley; escape to the mountains, or you will be swept away….. ” (Genesis 19:17). Anyway, Lot’s wife did look behind her and was transformed into a pillar of salt!
Who knows why Lot’s wife did really look back. Some renditions of the story say it was because she still longed for what Sodom had to offer, some say it was because she wanted to see if her daughters were okay. Regardless of her intentions, she looked back and was frozen into salt.
The story of Lot’s wife must have had a strong impact on me, because somewhere along the lines of moving from childhood to adolescence to adulthood, I came to believe that it was unnecessary and forbidden to look back, and that getting on in life meant keeping my eyes straight ahead. Everyone around me was always looking forward and not exploring the past, so why should I be any different – I felt different enough as it was, why be any more different?
I remember getting ready to leave Nigeria, for England in 1988. As I went through my belongings deciding what to take and what to leave behind, “do not look behind you” rang in my ears. I decided to leave many things behind – physical and emotional. I also did not want pictures to remind me of the past, and so did not take any. I wanted to focus on the future and what it had in store.
I remember arriving in London and the past did indeed feel like a ‘foreign country’. At my first job interview, few months after my arrival, I was asked whether it would be okay to call me ‘Ade’, instead of ‘Wale’ – which was the name I was known by (full name Adewale). “Do not look behind you” rang in my ears. A new name was perfect, as it meant that the past was truly over, and I could keep my eyes on the present and future.
As the years passed, I made it my mission not to look back. “What’s the point?” I would ask myself, “The past is over and done with. The future is what matters”. And like Jason, in search of the Golden Fleece, I journeyed from job to job, relationship to relationship and place to place, hoping to find comfort, belonging and joy in the present moment.
In 2002, aged 34, a significant relationship came to an end, and I found myself caught up in a cave of despair. Late one evening as I lamented on the situation and pondered on what had gone wrong, I paused and reflected on all the relationships I had been in, since coming out as gay a few years prior. They all had a common theme – it was like I had been dating the same person over and over, just that he had a different name.
As I continued to ponder and ask myself how I came to end up in this situation once again, something deep within me said that I had to revisit the past in order to understand the present. “Do not look back behind you”, rang in my ears. In addition, I had recently discovered Eckhart Tolle’s “The Power of Now’ and was of the mindset that I simply needed to throw myself into the present moment. And yet, I knew deep down that I needed to risk looking behind, like Lot’s wife – yes, I could end up being hypnotised by the past – but it was a risk worth taking.
A few months later, I bought an airline ticket and flew back to Nigeria. I had been away for 14 years and had vowed never to return. My dreams were very vivid during this whole period – my reoccurring nightmare featured me being stuck in Nigeria, having lost all my money and not being able to return to England. During that trip, I went through family albums and returned with a multitude of pictures capturing different stages of my life journey. I had taken up keeping a journal a few years prior, and during that trip took on the practice of not simply journaling about the present, but journalling about the past.
My interpretation of the story of Lot’s wife has evolved over the years. For starters, I no longer see it as a literal story. And even though I stopped being a Christian many moons ago, I still love this story and I still see it as a cautionary tale of what could happen when we look back – for if we are not mindful when looking back, we could easily find ourselves possessed by the past and unconsciously allow it to dictate our present and future; or we could be overwhelmed by it and left bitter. However, if we are to be fully in the present, we need to take that risk and look back to heal our unfinished business of the past. It is a dilemma, a paradox. But is that not the nature of life?
So, if you do decided to venture into the past, here are some renderings to navigate the way, so that you don’t end up like Lot’s wife. Draw from them your own interpretations and meanings……
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.. ” – George Santayana
“There is no present or future – only the past, happening over and over again-now.”― Eugene O’Neill
“The pain of the past is often held in suspension until we are ready for it to find us…”
“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” ― Søren Kierkegaard
“… until you heal the wounds of your past, you will continue to bleed. You can bandage the bleeding with food, with alcohol, with drugs, with work, with cigarettes, with sex, but eventually, it will all ooze through and stain your life. You must find the strength to open the wounds, stick your hands inside, pull out the core of the pain that is holding you in your past, the memories, and make peace with them… ” ― Iyanla Vanzant
“The present changes the past. Looking back you do not find what you left behind.” ― Kiran Desai
“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” ― William Faulkner
“Study the past if you would define the future.” ― Confucius
“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” ― L.P. Hartley
“I have realized that the past and future are real illusions, that they exist in the present, which is what there is and all there is.”― Alan W. Watts
“I’ve never tried to block out the memories of the past, even though some are painful. I don’t understand people who hide from their past. Everything you live through helps to make you the person you are now.” ― Sophia Loren