The past is far from the ideal place to set up residence, but I’ve been living in it for quite a while now. The past is a familiar neighborhood, and I am afraid it might be hard to leave, but leave it I must if I want to start actually living before an alarming death rattle comes up through my chest and I realize it’s a bit late. It has been rather nice here, in a morose sort of way. I have a comfy chair, a blanket and matching pillows, and a remote control. I can sip hot tea or drink a generous glass of red wine and ignore my present reality while I close my eyes and wallow in the emotion of my choice. Generally, I’ve chosen regret as the umbrella emotion, but that holds with it other r-words, such as resentment, rage, and remorse. A few dramas drove me here; although thankfully I’ve functioned well enough to hold a paying job, this ongoing comfy chair pity party has been recurring for a very long time!
From this day forth, I want to look at the past in a new light. Oh, it’ll still be there, because there’s no way I can really make what has happened not happen. I’ll just look at it differently. Maybe I’ll still even use the comfy chair from time to time, but I won’t live there. Instead of using the past as an excuse to eat ice cream and ignore reality, I’ll use it as a compilation of lessons from which I can pick and choose. As I sift through river of my memories, I can pan for gold, and I’m bound to find it there. I’ve already done some introspection about the matter, and here’s what I’ve come up with so far:
The Past Is:
1) A Hodge-Podge of Disputable Interpretations that Can and Should be Questioned
Ha! I bet you thought I’d say that the past is a teacher! It is, kind of, and I’ve snuck this concept in as my second point. First, however, I must point out that if you ask two members of the same family who’ve witnessed an event together about the details of that event, and you’ll very likely get two different stories. You can get variations of stories from your own mind, too! In this regard, the past is a changeable and moody beast. Remember, people filter what happens through whatever lens they are might be looking through at the time. These filters are developed through culture, family, education, friends, books, television shows, music, and any number of factors. An event occurs, and then the way you interpret it depends on whatever screen you’re looking through at the moment. Age takes part in the matter, as well. What a five year old sees varies widely from what a teenager or a middle aged person sees. When you go back to the past, you don’t take the same filter with you that you had before. So how do you even understand what happened? And does it really matter, since the past, by definition, is officially over?
2) A Potentially Insightful Guide
I’d say the past is a teacher, but that isn’t exactly true. The past is not going to look at me with bespectacled eyes and kindly bestow wisdom upon me. It will, however, offer up experiences from which I can derive my own lesson plan. I can interpret negative experiences, start to see patterns, and come up with strategies for change, if change is possible. If change is not possible, then I’ll say the serenity prayer and accept the situation, instead. Either way, I’ll move on after having learned something.
I can also gather up positive experiences, and look for ways to continue those. I point this out because of my tendency to look at the past through the lens of a person who has been repeatedly beaten over the head with a very large stick for so long that she cannot remember what it’s like not to be beaten over the head with a very large stick. As a recovering pessimist, however, I must publicly admit that good stuff happens occasionally, as well, and these types of experiences should be gathered up and placed into a pretty basket, to be on display in the forefront of my mind – on the mantel of my mental fireplace, if you will.
3) A Potentially Dangerous Place
The past can be a siren call to a distant land of lamentations, too much wine, and an abused present moment that gets trampled over by the pursuit of what has already happened. It is tempting to regress back into a self-righteous, melancholic rage, for instance, when one is conjuring up what a significant other did five years ago. But isn’t that a waste of time? As Anne Lamott has so artistically illustrated, “My mind is a neighborhood I try not to go into alone.” This is especially true when we let our thoughts linger in places where we have absolutely no control. What happened five years ago or even five minutes ago is indisputably unchangeable, and if we choose to dwell there, the present moment will slip by without being savored or utilized. If we live this way, we are choosing to be in a terrifying, crime-ridden landscape. We’re hopping about imaginary police-taped outlines of bodies on the pavement and crying over the cadavers!
In sum, the past is a potential place to mine for gold, and it is also a potential minefield. Approach it carefully. Salvage bits and pieces. You will find a bountiful assortment of good and bad. You will find memories that will make you fall to your knees in gratitude, and memories that will overcome you with sorrow. By all means, go there. Just don’t do what I did and take up residence. Although it may feel comfortable, it’s a trick. I lured myself into believing my life was over, and years went by before I woke up and realized I was wrong. Fortunately, although I am moving away from the past, I don’t have to put up any for-sale signs. I can keep my same house, my same stuff, and my same surroundings. I won’t have to pack up any boxes, and no moving van will be required. Although I have been living in the past, the present has always been here, patiently waiting for me to see it. I can still stay in this comfy chair, even, if only for a minute longer, but instead of mourning the past, I can rejoice in the now. It is delicious here. Join me!