Lately, I’ve been talking to people about this idea of dealing with the past. For me, the topic is coming up a lot because in the last few months, my writing has gravitated towards memoir. I’m surprised how charged the subject of the past is for some people. I’ll say that I’m focusing on some era from earlier in my life, and all of the sudden I hear someone saying, oh forget about it! It’s in the past! It’s as though I said I want to go clean up nuclear waste for a hobby.
The emotional charge that comes from this is interesting, because once anything happens, it is in the past. The absolutism that comes from the visceral reaction of the statement, “It’s in the past!” seems to forget that if you should forget your past, you should not talk about the great movie you went to last week with your friends. After all, “It’s in the past!”. Celebrate your wedding anniversary? Forget about it. “It’s in the past!”. Show pictures of your newborn? Get over it! The kid’s two weeks old already! You probably are getting the picture. Shutting the door completely on the past is not only silly, but is probably not what these people mean by reacting to it. And, quite frankly, it is impossible to forget the past. What basic function is memory for other than to help us make better decisions in the present? You burn yourself on a stove, you remember not to do it again.
What I think people mean by the “It’s in the past!” statement is that it is easy to dwell on the past without doing anything constructive about it. Then your time travel becomes at best, an exercise in futility, and at worst, a guilt trip that causes you to self-destruct and sabotage your present and your future. So to them, forget about what you did yesterday and focus on what you can do today. The only problem is that perhaps without realizing it, your past decisions have created attitudes and habits that affect your decisions in the present. I personally think it is a great idea to live well in the present moment. But I’ll be honest: when I hear someone react to the idea of even looking at the past, as though there is some unwritten statute of limitations as to whether it is okay to talk about last week’s movie versus some other time frame further back in history, I wonder if there is something going on with these people that they think is better off buried that wasn’t quite dead when they did so.
My take on this is that it is best if you can use the past to make a better future by utilizing the present moment. Nostalgia is one thing, but if you are “clinging” to something in the past is probably a clue that some kind of spiritual surgery needs to be applied. If something from your past seems better off forgotten and you take great effort to actually forget it, then this would be a case for applying your spiritual medicine. Maybe it is forgiveness, whether of yourself or another person. Or, you need to take the time to see things in a new way. This process helps turn skeletons in the closet into life lessons, which can be harvested to make a better life today.
Dealing with the past is an important part of emotional growth. You need to do this effectively, so that you don’t get bogged down in regret. Using your past to heal today is an art form. The bonus is that if you do it effectively, you can even use it to help yourself or others in the future. If you avoid this work, you may pay in bitter attitudes and sadness that seem unexplainable and irrelevant to the task at hand. This is because if you bury something alive, it most likely will affect you and those around you until you put it to rest. So for your own spiritual and emotional well-being and those of others, deal with your past as best you can.
If you are dealing with something that is plaguing you, whether due to being victimized or your own personal actions, you may want a nice summary of bullet points to get you through some quick action plan. Unfortunately, it usually isn’t that simple. What works for one probably doesn’t for another. Some people do well by talk therapy. For others, this just keeps them in negativity. You need to be sensitive to your own progress when choosing a method to deal with your past. Don’t think that you have to continue with something that isn’t working. On the other hand, a practice may take some time before you can see results. Again, this is the art of attaining your own personal balance.
In the last year, I have gone through my own odyssey of dealing with the past. It took me some time to deal with it, because it was over issue that had been long resolved. But there were fissures in this declaration. Something was off in my attitudes: it seemed harder for me to let go of things than seemed logical to me. I tried to reason my way out of it, apply positive attitudes and snappy affirmatives. But after journaling for some time, it turned out I had not completed the homework that I thought was finished. There were still attitudes of arrogance and cynicism that seemed to be linked to this unresolved issue.
What I chose to do was to go with the flow of what the issues were. I assumed that it had to do with my family of origin, so I initially focused my inventory on this topic. For me, I used journaling, prayer and meditation as tools. It was through my meditation that I was led an issue that had nothing to do with how I grew up, at least not directly. It had been a totally different subject than I assumed. I decided to read books related to this issue, and I did a moral inventory much like as suggested in the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. I had a journal from this time period, and it was evidence of my attitudes and how I contributed to the issue. The work I did was to list my resentments and fears pertaining to the issue, see where I had been dishonest, and become willing to make amends to anyone involved. I prayed and meditated until I was able to choose to forgive myself and anyone else involved, including God. My slate was “clean” once I felt confident that if I met any of the people in question, I would be able to own up to my side of the situation to them directly. This is the work I did to deal with my past. My hope is that by doing so, I can better use what I dealt with to help make a better future for myself and others.
Living in the present requires focus on the past and the future. Even if the action is as mundane as I am going to my cupboard to eat a granola bar, the present moment is infused with remembering where the granola bar is (past) and that I intend to eat the granola bar (future). Lack of forgiveness of self and others, and self-pity is what is so damaging about the past. Anxiety about what will happen is what is damaging about the future. In this respect, the past and the future damage the present. Cleaning the wreckage of the past and planning the future with others in mind is a healthy way to integrate all three dimensions.
(This article was previously published on Helium.com under the same title)