30. The Past
Each person who gets stuck in time gets stuck alone.
Alan Lightman (physicist and novelist)
The past affects practically every aspect of ourselves, including our thoughts, feelings and behaviour, so it is well worthwhile paying attention to it. Needless to say, the past can’t be changed, but this doesn’t mean that we are completely helpless in this respect. How and to what extent your past influences your life depends on how you relate to it. We will consider here both unhelpful and helpful ways of relating to our past experiences.
Unhelpful ways of relating to the past
Avoiding the past: these are some typical examples:
- ‘I don’t want to think about what happened that day’
- ‘I don’t remember what happened’
Running away from troubling past experiences can indeed provide a temporary relief. Suppressing intrusive thoughts about the past may also be necessary when the present situation requires our full attention (e.g. it is not good idea to think about your childhood memories while taking an exam). However, if we keep avoiding the past, related emotions will continue to have an effect ‘below the surface’ and will be even less under our control. So this may be a short term strategy at best.
Ruminating about the past is triggered by perceived wrongdoing (our own or somebody else’s). These are some examples:
- Playing the same event in one’s head over and over.
- Keeping punishing yourself or others, with some vain hope that this will somehow make up for the past.
- ‘Why (did it happen / did he do…)?’
Ruminating is the result of our refusal to accept a past event. As the past cannot be changed, it becomes a circular trap, like a broken record. Ruminating doesn’t achieve anything but prevents you from being present and recognising current opportunities. In effect, it is just another mistake that does not correct the past ones.