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The Part Played By Past Experience

you have seen or heard or felt; of things you have thought of before and
which now recur to you; of things you remember, such as names, dates,
places, events; of things that you do not remember as a part of your
past at all, but that belong to it nevertheless--these are the things
which form a large part of your mental stream, and which give content to
your thinking. You may think of a thing that is going on now, or of one
that is to occur in the future; but, after all, you are dependent on
your past experience for the material which you put into your thinking
of the present moment.

Indeed, nothing can enter your present thinking which does not link
itself to something in your past experience. The savage Indian in the
primeval forest never thought about killing a deer with a rifle merely
by pulling a trigger, or of turning a battery of machine guns on his
enemies to annihilate them--none of these things were related to his
past experience; hence he could not think in such terms.

THE PRESENT INTERPRETED BY THE PAST.--Not only can we not think at all
except in terms of our past experience, but even if we could, the
present would be meaningless to us; for the present is interpreted in
the light of the past. The sedate man of affairs who decries athletic
sports, and has never taken part in them, cannot understand the wild
enthusiasm which prevails between rival teams in a hotly contested
event. The fine work of art is to the one who has never experienced the
appeal which comes through beauty, only so much of canvas and variegated
patches of color. Paul says that Jesus was unto the Greeks,
foolishness. He was foolishness to them because nothing in their
experience with their own gods had been enough like the character of
Jesus to enable them to interpret Him.

THE FUTURE ALSO DEPENDS ON THE PAST.--To the mind incapable of using
past experience, the future also would be impossible; for we can look
forward into the future only by placing in its experiences the elements
of which we have already known. The savage who has never seen the
shining yellow metal does not dream of a heaven whose streets are paved
with gold, but rather of a happy hunting ground. If you will analyze
your own dreams of the future you will see in them familiar pictures
perhaps grouped together in new forms, but coming, in their elements,
from your past experience nevertheless. All that would remain to a mind
devoid of a past would be the little bridge of time which we call the
present moment, a series of unconnected nows. Thought would be
impossible, for the mind would have nothing to compare and relate.
Personality would not exist; for personality requires continuity of
experience, else we should be a new person each succeeding moment,
without memory and without plans. Such a mind would be no mind at all.

past experience in determining our present thinking and guiding our
future actions, that the place of an individual in the scale of creation
is determined largely by the ability to profit by past experience. The
scientist tells us of many species of animals now extinct, which lost
their lives and suffered their race to die out because when, long ago,
the climate began to change and grow much colder, they were unable to
use the experience of suffering in the last cold season as an incentive
to provide shelter, or move to a warmer climate against the coming of
the next and more rigorous one. Man was able to make the adjustment;
and, providing himself with clothing and shelter and food, he survived,
while myriads of the lower forms perished.

The singed moth again and again dares the flame which tortures it, and
at last gives its life, a sacrifice to its folly; the burned child fears
the fire, and does not the second time seek the experience. So also can
the efficiency of an individual or a nation, as compared with other
individuals or nations, be determined. The inefficient are those who
repeat the same error or useless act over and over, or else fail to
repeat a chance useful act whose repetition might lead to success. They
are unable to learn their lesson and be guided by experience. Their past
does not sufficiently minister to their present, and through it direct
their future.

Next: How Past Experience Is Conserved

Previous: Problems In Observation And Introspection

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