All of us are comprised of our pasts, this is the foundation of who we are, and often who we will become. To the larger extent, we are the sum of our experiences, at any given point. I don’t know that it is possible to shed one’s past complete for we contain all that is within. However, I expect it is quite feasible to alter one’s perception and responses to our past and in that way alter one’s state of Being in the future.
Experience is largely a linear thing, at least as far as our cognitive mind is concerned. Elements of cause and effect are neatly categorized so as to learn from patterns and chains of causality. However, emotional experiences are often experienced in the Now, where the past, present and projected future converge without context.
Ripples Through Time
Imagine experience as a far from a “perfect” spiral, as at some points the curves come very close to one another, while at other points they are so distant as to seem to have no bearing on each other at all. The reason I say a spiral is because, while the past and present may come close to one another and influence the future at any point, it is not consistent – and also appears to be somewhat mutable. They may even overlap at certain junctures… I think that we create a good deal of our own past after a certain stage in life, and in doing so, create our futures by our present.
As human creatures, we seem to be subject a linear law that states we must move forward. Please don’t confuse this sentiment with the general concept of progress however. Rather, I mean that moving forward is the attempt to leave the shadows or ghosts of the past behind and “get on with it”. Anyone that deals with depression is often cursed by unbidden rumination, or dwelling in the past to a certain degree, despite your best attempts to leave them behind – a rather maddening degree distress. My own phantasms are enormously tireless and persistent things that plague me most when I need them least. Relief from persistent specters seems to come only at rare moments…
I have found that, while the past is always present within us emotionally, we have to release our grasp on it in order to move on. We cannot live there for it is gone and there’s no way to change what was.
People seem to define themselves by what they typically regret. This has been borne out in studies that interview those in the end-life stage, sometimes in conversance or other critical care homes. Usually there is one instance that stands out in their minds – an incident that is a major gap in their lives. More often than not, it’s a regret not from what we did do, but from what they didn’t do. Some regret no completing their schooling, not proposing to someone, not traveling or having some particular experience. Some people have had so much strife and disruption they regret having been born…
Granted some situations are extremely difficult to let go of – such as accidentally hitting a child while driving (which, unless you are totally psychotic, would cause regret in anyone). I use this example because of a man who did just that, eventually became so remorseful that he took his own life, finding the guilt and regret unbearable. It was a terrible thing to be certain, but the child darted into the street after his toy, the mother was taken by surprise and couldn’t grab the child in time, the driver wasn’t expecting it. It was an accident – a confluence of happenstance that ended tragically.
Although we sometimes believe it is fate that conspires to it, more often than not it’s a bad roll of the dice. If only he hadn’t left work at that particular time, if only the child had been in the back yard playing rather than the front, If only the mother was a touch quicker, If only the driver had stopped for milk on the way… This leads to dwelling on the “if only” ad infinitum. In effect, this chasing the past only serves to preoccupy the present, which in turn influences the Future Past, leading to more regrets… kind of a vicious circle.
My point is that everyone has instances in their past which may cause regrets and incur “If Only”. Not all are as traumatic as the example sited, but they most certainly comprise some of our pasts in one form or another. Regret and guilt are useless emotions for the most part. They exist to let us know there is something we need to learn and to pay attention to – a lesson for future reference. To make us see that we may have to execute our choices with more discernment.
Other than that, they seem to simply become excess baggage. I think most people know instinctively when they are making a mistake… whether or not they listen to that inner-knowing that is desperately trying to clue them in via Instinct, Intuition, or quieter yet nagging feelings and thoughts.
Is What It Is
Sometimes, things just are what they are – and the blame cannot be placed or shared by anyone. A wrong choice is just that; a wrong choice. A mistake is sometimes a wrong choice made knowingly, against our better judgement. At other times it’s just bad dumb luck. I believe we can learn from our mistakes, not carry around a load of guilt and allow it to debilitate our future choices. We cannot change the past, but we can and should influence the creation of our futures. It seems, however, that a good number of people don’t seem to feel as if they have a choice or hand in this creation process. Perhaps it’s just easier…?
Not doing something, however, has just as much impact on the future as does taking a particular action. The outcome may change, or it may not, or at least may not immediately – yet our society is so geared towards instant results and gratification that making better choices seems almost counter-intuitive to instant reaction. Think of the types of folks who, for whatever reason, wish to recapture or relive their pasts. The idea of one particular instance or time frame is so appealing in comparison to the present they would crawl right back into it if they could. Naturally they cannot; no more so than Snake can crawl back into her skin once it is shed – which illustrates why the shedding metaphor does not work.
Put the Woman Down
While I would not say that one could shed their past, I would say that it’s not so much a shedding as it is a “Lugging around”. We are indeed made up of various components of our history, but whether we choose to accept them, deny them, or flagellate ourselves with them is another story. There is little need to carry the past so heavily and persistently. Consider that the past has already marked you, shaped you – it might be best to own that past and make those features yours. Better this than that of an indifferent god or string of people left behind in the past (except perhaps in one’s own nightmarish visions).
There is a story I like that makes this point. It comes in many varieties, but its salient point is typically the same. The story goes like this:
Two monks are on the road traveling on pilgrimage, one elder and one younger, both from a sect that prohibits touching women. They came to a swiftly running river crossing, and there they see a beautiful young woman dressed in finery. The bridge is out, and is stuck not knowing how to cross the river without ruining her clothes or being swept away. Since they too need to cross the river, the elder monk graciously offers to carry her across the river. Without much ago, he picked her up and carries her across the muddy river, gently setting her onto the dry banks on the opposite side. The monks then continue their journey, leaving the woman to her own destination.
The younger monk was livid, seething but holding his tongue as they walked. After some time he could stand no more. “How could you do that?” he scolded. “You know we are forbidden even to touch a woman, much less pick one up and carry her around!” While the younger monk complained, the elder monk listened to the protestations in silence. After some time the elder held up a finger and said, “I only carried her across the stream, but for a few breaths. Why do you still carried her?”
Memory of emotions and experience serves to help us learn, to make better decisions, to avoid dangers and improve our ability to survive. Yet if we but put two small words together, we have one of the most powerful combinations in the human language – “if only”. These words can haunt us, torment us, and drive us utterly insane. These words are perhaps the most spoken pair of which I’m aware. Far too many people either resign their fate or blame themselves with those words – eventually opening the door to all the “what ifs” in their lives: I should have, I could have, If only, etc…
Ultimately, what is – IS. That is all that matters, what is, and what you will use from it. Do we use it to realize new lessons, to grow and develop into wiser beings? I hope so, for the other way is often a path of obsession and a burden that you carry with you – and only you can lay it down on the other side of the swiftly moving river.
Copyright Limits Unleashed
Written c.2000, updated & republished 2018