Alternatives to the past

It seems fairly simple and easy to understand. If you want to achieve some kind of success, in fact, if you want your life to improve in any way at all, then your future is going to have to be a lot better than your past. (It’s definitely going to have to be an improvement on your present.) The only problem is that, for most of us, we’re so attached to the past that we can’t let it go. We can’t say goodbye and move on. Is it any surprise that our future then comes along, predictably, as a repeat of the past – no matter how bad that was at the time?

There are several reasons for this. One is that we get attached to disasters. There was an episode of ‘Thirty Something’ on TV some years ago. One of the major characters got cancer and all her friends tried to jolly her along, cheer her up and generally not let her talk about how awful it was. She turned to them in confusion and said, ‘Don’t you understand? This is the biggest thing that ever happened to me!’ So, we may not like things going wrong, but if it’s big enough, we interpret that to mean it must be important and even ‘significant’. Then, reveling in the experience, we don’t want to be cheered up. We don’t want to forget. We don’t want to move on. Consequently, years later, we’re still reliving that trauma, that accident, that abuse, and we can’t forget it, ever.

Secondly, our memories are never even-handed. We don’t remember every memory equally. Generally speaking, we tend to overvalue failures and undervalue successes. That is, again, we can instantly recall things that went wrong for us, but when someone tries to say, ‘You were really good’ or ‘That was marvelous’, we shrug it off. If we could make more of the positive stuff, that would give us a good basis to build on. Bad memories can’t be built on. They’re a like quagmire and a pit that we sink in to, over and over again, every time we bring the old stuff to mind.

Thirdly, we may feel unhappy about the present, and uncertain about the future, but the past feels like a rock, solid. We saw it, we were there, and we know exactly how the story ended. When people encourage us to ‘envision’ what’s to come, it’s murky at best, not quite in focus. The past, by contrast, is crystal clear. In general, we tend to overvalue the past and undervalue the future, which is strange, because the past doesn’t exist in this point in time, any more than the future does. The only way we make it real is to re-create it in our minds. Why should that be any more ‘solid’ than our fantasies about the future? Worse, it’s a fact that many people hold onto ‘facts’ about the past that are no more than fantasies either, (but they don’t seem to notice it and don’t like having it pointed out to them). Try asking your family and friends about some event from long ago that’s troubling you. Chances are that their recollection will be markedly different to yours. If that gives you doubt about the awfulness of what you feel right now, well, good. Maybe that will chip away at the millstone you’re carrying with you after all these years and loosen up the dead weight that’s holding you back.

Here’s an experiment to try. Resolve that when you wake up tomorrow you will have a day without memories. That’s right, you won’t spend a minute of time thinking about anything that isn’t happening there and then, each moment in the present. Ouch, I hear you cry. I couldn’t do that! Why not? What would you be missing? Hurt, pain, and bad feelings, maybe. Okay, some people see those bits as being them, their essence. Is that you? Are you a person who is what you remember? Or are you a person who can live in the ‘now’, see what is happening in this instant, and react to it with your whole personality, and not just as something that you have to filter through your memory?

What does it prove? That while some people have ‘rose coloured glasses’ and see everything in warm tints, equally there are people with brown coloured specs, who see nothing but bad stuff, misery, and fear. What do you say to those happy-go-lucky optimists, with the red shades? Why, you tell them to shape up, ‘get real’, and see that everything isn’t so nice and pretty as they pretend. Maybe, you could be right, but the other type of person needs a shake-up too. Hey, ‘get real’, you doom-laden miseries! Life isn’t all bad, either. It only looks that way today because of the horrors you’re dragging out of the past to shape them with. If you got out of the past and into the present, then it’s only a short hop to the future, where – who knows – your life could be fashioned and moulded to be better. A short hop. A small jump, yes. A very short distance. A few seconds, in fact. That’s how far the future is away.