The PastApril 15, 2015
A very good friend of mine is currently going through a major life transition as he moves from a situation in which he has experienced great physical and spiritual peace and tranquility into one that will require frequent travel and little rootedness. While he is an introvert by nature, much preferring silence and solitude over the social spotlight, he is being called into this new season because he is extremely effective, inspirational and influential in his interaction with others.
Grieving over his impending transition (and ruminating as all introverts are so good at doing), he wrote that he felt bad at not having used the time of his last few serene years more productively. His self-indictment included not having stayed in closer contact with friends and relatives, not having written more in his journal, not having been more present to the people, circumstances and experiences of this time. He was, literally, beating himself up for not performing according to some set of standards that he was artificially imposing upon himself.
How terrible was that! He was completely discounting the significance of his recent past by retrospectively imposing upon its memory some unrelated and unnecessary standards of an artificial notion of productivity or contribution.
And I realized as I read his reflection that we do that all the time, don’t we? When we think about times past, we tend to concentrate on what we think we did wrong or what we construe as failure. We do, in fact, beat ourselves up with thoughts of how we could have responded better or improved our performance or attended more completely to what was going on. And then these thoughts of the past become too oppressive for us to bear, causing us to begin to repress them or to rewrite them in our minds in some more palatable, yet distorted, way. Of course, when we start to go down this disastrous path, we begin to separate ourselves from what is really real and to construct a world of our own making, ever more distant from others and the community upon which our genuine reality depends. We isolate ourselves in our own little worlds, where we think that we are the center of the universe and all our behavior then reflects this new narcissistic illusion.
The antidote to this phenomenon is to understand that the meaning of the past is not, in the words of Parker Palmer, “fixed and frozen in place. Instead, its meaning changes as life unfolds.” We may have made many mistakes and may not have lived up to our own expectations, but those appreciations become the context within which we make decisions about the actions we take going forward. Parker reminds us that “the good I do today may well have its roots in something not-so-good I did in the past. Knowing that takes me beyond both the sinkhole of regret and the hot-air balloon of pride.”
So, abandon all those worries and regrets about the past that you carry so diligently around with you. They do not define you, but rather provide you with a context and a path that allow you to engage the present and the future with the wisdom to know which paths have more possibilities.
Jerry Kearney, D.Min.
Vice President, Mission Integration
Saint Thomas Health