Vergangenheitsbewältigung and My Senior Prom

You’ve gotta love the German language. English may have the largest vocabulary with nearly a million words. French may be the language of love and diplomacy. Brazilian Portuguese may be as suave as a bossa nova. But only German has such exactness and refinement that it has given birth to the lyric poetry of Goethe and the theories of Einstein. Not to mention automotive engineering and coffee maker design.

Vergangenheitsbewältigung: let’s break it downVergangen means the past, with heits intensifying the meaningso that you end up with something like “pastness.” Bewältigung means coping or managing. Taken together, the word means coming to terms with the past. It is often associated with Germany’s attempt to come to terms with the Holocaust and then, later, Communist rule. But it also can be applied in a broader sense, which is what I have in mind.

I spend a lot of time reflecting on and coming to terms with my past. It’s one of my charms. In this instance, the past I am coming to terms with is my senior prom in May, 1974.

It went this way. I attended two high schools, one in New York for my freshman and sophomore years and a second in New Jersey for my junior and the first half of my senior years. In the second half of my senior year, I returned to my original high school in New York and graduated from there. That may not seem like a big deal, but I remember feeling as if I had been on a trip to Jupiter and back. I felt awkward, displaced, alien.


Enter Homeroom. I am not sure what Homeroom really is or its purpose. They may not even have it anymore. But in 1974 I was in Homeroom with an assigned partner, a girl, with whom I also shared a few classes. We sat next to each other. She was shy but friendly. I was funny. She giggled. I put on my father’s Old Spice. She asked me to the prom. I said no.


I was afraid, despite the aftershave and flirting. The girl was not in my group of friends and I was not in hers. Beyond each other, we knew no one else in our respective peer groups. I did not have the presence of mind or courage to break through that. I like to think that has changed in my adult years, courage being the mean between cowardice and rashness. There was also someone else, a girl I had sat next to years earlier, although she already had a date.

As ridiculous as it may sound, not going to the senior prom has been one of my regrets in life. It may not sound like much, but that rejection was the first of several decisions in my life that were just plain wrong. It was wrong for everyone. Over the years, I have even thought of the girl’s father, who may have wanted to wring my neck. I wouldn’t have blamed him. As the father of three girls, I know what that anxiety is like.

Without creating a new Seinfeld episode, I’ve thought about reconnecting with this girl. Recently, I have discovered that she lives in New York and has the same last name. Email would be safe. Then again, she’s liable to think I am insane. I doubt she feels the need to have this resolved. Besides, what is the “this” that needs resolution? My guilt? Getting in touch with her after all these years to make amends and then withdrawing as quietly as before would be the moral equivalent of splashing Old Spice on again.

Still, can it be that Vergangenheitsbewältigung is an individual act involving only my conscience and no one else’s? Shouldn’t it also include an outward act with others for the benefit of all? What is the point of acting like the protagonist of The Sorrows of Young Werther if my ego is the only thing that benefits? I suppose this is what the Germans are grappling with now.

This is about more than just a white sport coat, bestimmt.

Like fiction? Check out the “Mercury trilogy” (The Gringo and Laura Fedora) as well as the autobiographical Nine Lives here. Also, go to Robert Brancatelli. The Brancatelli Blog is a member of The Free Media Alliance, which promotes “alternatives to software, culture, and hardware monopolies.”


  1. this is the text of Zap Oracle card #401, something I wrote a while ago but that relates to your post:

    Conscious reflection on the past can deepen the soul and even provide revelations of great value for the present and future. On the other hand, returning to the past obsessively out of emotional addiction can be a massive, massive draining of vitality needed for full engagement with the present. The past is not fixed or irrevocable. Memories are continually revised. Also, occurrences in the present or future can drastically alter the meaning of the past. For example, let’s say someone has a life phase of intense alcoholism in their past. In one timeline that phase is consistent with a general downwardly spiraling life path. In another timeline the person learns from that phase and uses the wisdom gained from encountering darkness to counsel others who are similarly afflicted. The meaning of the alcoholic phase is drastically altered based on what comes after, and this is one of the ways in which the past is mutable. Even neurologically, when memories are recalled they are always reinterpreted based on current values and point of view. The memory is an artifact of the past that, like an antique, has a resonance with the past but exists in the present where it can be re-experienced and re-interpreted.

    The past is still alive, but like the present or future, how we relate to it determines whether it inspires or entraps us. Consider this a propitious time to heal your relationship to the past.

    Extremely Relevant:
    Adhesions and the Timelines of the Unconscious

    For those of you willing to read more, a key to healing your past is to employ what I call “interpretive magic.” If, for example, events from your past were interpreted from a victim point of view in the past, it may be extremely empowering to reinterpret them as empowering lessons that helped you to learn what you needed to know to be the person you are now and to move toward the person you are becoming. Here are some thoughts on interpretive magic:

    It is a common and limiting assumption that only one interpretation of an event or situation is correct. But the phenomenal world is rarely, so cut and dried. Interpretation may often be more usefully regarded as a choice rather than flattened into what is believed to be the single correct answer. For example, I recently had to send in my laptop, my only computer, for repairs. Due to some improbable mishaps it had to be sent in two more times and the problem that should have taken days to fix has taken weeks. An extremely reasonable and plausible interpretation is that I have been meaninglessly inconvenienced due to mechanical forces beyond my control. An alternate interpretation is that the improbable mishaps were “meant to happen,” and that I needed space to open up from a long period of laborious editing I was doing. Which of these interpretations is most likely? The first explanation would seem to pass that classic test of logic, Occam’s Razor, that would have us prefer the simplest, least fancy explanation that accounts for all the facts. By contrast the “meant to happen” point of view is often used in ways that seem glib and reeking with sentimental rationalization. Mysterious forces, or the principle of synchronicity, would have to be employed to justify this interpretation, and that means that this hypothesis is significantly fancier than the first. But in some cases of interpretation, likelihood and strict rules of logic are not the most useful aspects when choosing amongst possible interpretations.

    In the case of the improbably prolonged laptop repair, I recognized both interpretations as potentially valid. Instead of deciding which of these interpretations was “right,” I recognized that it was much more useful for me to choose the interpretation that I intuitively preferred. When I tried on the first interpretation — the mechanical forces beyond my control interpretation — I found that it did nothing for me except increase stress and a sense of helpless frustration. I could feel my blood pressure rising and my jaw clenching and realized that this interpretation had adverse effects on both my body and psyche. The second interpretation provided a sense of space opening up, a sense of serendipity and unexpected possibilities. By choosing the second interpretation, I entered a different timeline than I would have entered if I had chosen the first interpretation. I decided to read a couple of books on a certain subject that I probably wouldn’t have had time to read if I had access to my laptop. These two books were accompanied by some parallel realizations of my own, and this led to a huge, life-changing breakthrough in an area of my life that I had struggled with for decades. In this case, choosing the interpretation that felt more empowering and life affirming seemed to lead to a much more positive outcome.

    The act of consciously choosing an interpretation of an event or situation is an example of what I call interpretive magic. The creative interpretation of life elements is not merely a matter of passive perception. Once you realize you have the right to interpret and reinterpret certain elements you usually need to act on the new interpretation to establish the timeline it opens up. For example, the person who created the artifact in the photograph recognized that they had the choice to merge elements of the Rastifari religion and Star Wars. Recognizing that they had such a choice led to the creative actions of impaling a Star Wars Imperial Walker on rebar and painting it in Rastifari colors. The opposite of interpretative magic is fundamentalism or orthodoxy of any kind where one’s right to interpret or reinterpret might be regarded as sacrilege or heresy. I have found that many people who are not overt fundamentalists fall for a similar delusion that I call the “museum curator fallacy.” Such people view everything, especially things found in nature, as sacred and never to be touched or interfered with. Such museum curator types often have a hands-off attitude toward people, especially if they are from an exotic culture, as if they were members of a Star Trek away team with an overly orthodox interpretation of the Prime Directive. Intruding their will on anything seems to them like a sacrilege and an interference with a divine plan. They don’t seem to recognize that they were incarnated as human beings, the most interventionist organisms that we know of, an attribute that is as much a part of nature as everything else.

    On the other hand, there are cases where interpretive magic should not be applied. For example, when trying to solve a homicide there is probably only one correct answer to the question: “Who was the shooter?” Scientific methodology and interpretive magic should obviously not be mixed. If you need to create a falsifiable conclusion and test it, you don’t want to apply interpretive magic. While you may be justified in reinterpreting your personal history to transform victim consciousness, if you did this to collective history your reinterpretation should be based on evidence not politically convenient revisionism, etc.

    Arnold Toynbee, the great historian who studied the lifecycle of civilizations, concluded that a civilization was in decline when it no longer had a ruling mythology. Your personal mythology is the aggregation of your significant choices of interpretation. Keep your interpretive choices creative and life-affirming so that you have a healthy personal mythology. If you don’t have a positive ruling mythology then your life will be in decline.

    Consider the occurrence of this card a propitious time to boldly and creatively apply interpretative magic to some area or areas of your life.

      1. Jonathan, thank you for the link and reference to your post. I will check it out. Your theory about “timelines of the unconscious” is interesting, and I will have to think about it. Two things come to mind immediately:

        (1) No doubt because of training and experience, I tend to think in classical terms so that there is a core of “reality” or facts that exist in every instance, not just crime cases, as you point out. This means that there is a core of objective data in all experience, whether you are fixing an airplane engine or painting in a Cubist style. That core may be very limited in the latter example, but it is still there. I’m sure you would not deny that your computer was broken, no matter the reason. It is that fact that drove you into a decision-making process. You did not make up the fact, but you did make up the alternatives (I say make up, because there were more than just two timelines available to you). So, while I recognize that nearly all post-Kantian thought is centered on the subjective, I reject the post-modern approach that would have us all in our own worlds of reality without any center binding us together. Not only is that very unnatural for us humans, but think of the society that would develop if everyone chose their own reality rather than just their interpretation of reality. I know you are not saying that, but it is a nuance that needs repeating, I think. The Internet and social media are already pushing us in this direction; some would say deliberately.

        (2) The senior prom example in the blog is actually part of a larger experience. I had drinks with a close childhood friend the other day and we talked about regrets, secrets, and things like that in the course of a few hours. We didn’t just reminisce but re-imagined and recreated the past from the perspective of the present, as you say. That leads me to suggest to you that there aren’t timelines of the unconscious but time loops. When the loop becomes complete, goes full circle, you achieve understanding, maybe enlightenment, the result of which is greater compassion for yourself and others. It was in this context that I wrote about the senior prom. The “data” of the rejection led to deeper friendship and greater self-awareness (at least between me and my friend). Of course, it took forty-three years. That’s a pretty big loop…

        1. Good points. I am definitely not in the post-modernist infinite subjectivity camp or the New Age you create your own reality camp or in the alternative fact world of Kellyanne Conway/Donald Trump. On the other hand findings in physics seem to be contradicting the assumption of an observer-independent objective physical reality I don’t begin to have your training in philosophy but I have created my own philosophy that works for me called Dynamic Paradoxicalism: Essentially it says that the opposite of a profound truth is another profound truth . A dynamic paradoxicalist avoids a long-term commitment to absolutisms in favor of a sliding or “dynamic” relationship to the poles of a paradox. So related dynamic paradoxes would be you create your own reality vs. outside reality creates you, observer dependent subjectivity vs. observer independent objectivity, etc. This is why I said interpretive magic should not be applied to science or murder trials which need to favor the objective pole. So I would not recommend that you apply interpretive magic to deny the established fact of your missing the prom but to a still fungible, dynamic system that exists in the present, your psyche and the meaning that you ascribe to past events. For example, you could decide as of right now to reinterpret the missed prom as a great gift, something you will think about every morning because it can inspire you to be more completely present for each moment, and alert to those evanescent opportunities to make meaningful connections (or reconnections with people form your past—as in the case of the emails I sent you a couple of weeks ago you’ve neglected) so that the memory of this one lost opportunity becomes an continuing carpe diem inspiration enriching your life going forward.

          1. Your dynamic paradoxicalism reminds me of “paradoxical logic,” which is a theory I came up with to understand and explain sacramental theology, specifically, the Eucharist. One profound truth revealing another profound truth but in a counter-intuitive way. If there are emails I have missed, it was unintentional. I thought I had responded to your posts. Evanescence is a good description of what is happening.

  2. I could relate to the fact that you go back in time to reevaluate your decision making . I do this often .And i agree that not going to the prom was a mistake . The blog was a little to egocentric for me. With all else going on .

    1. Thanks for the note, Steven. I have been writing about current events lately and thought I’d mix things up this week. I’ll take your advice, though, and try to contribute something about the political situation. This time, I’ll try to be humorous. Less egocentric I’ll try but can’t promise! Take care.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Verified by MonsterInsights