The past is a funny thing. Not “ha ha” funny; at least not exactly. But it’s funny because our memories are always partially fictional in nature. One of my favorite lines from the movie Her is when one of the characters Samantha, says, “The past is just a story we tell ourselves.” And it’s a scientific truth as much as it is an instinctive one. Think of any event, any event in history at all, and you will find that everybody’s story of it is a little bit different. And when we tell the stories of our past, we do not tell them objectively; we cannot, no matter how hard we try.
A yogi I know likes to say, “90% of the thoughts we have today are the same thoughts we had yesterday.” I don’t know about the statistics on that one but I do believe there is truth in it. We often get fixated on the things we let into our minds, and we let them run through, over and over again. Like the hamster on the wheel, we cycle and recycle our thoughts – what we think about ourselves and those around us; our thoughts about the things we love, and the things we fear. As we go through changes, perhaps the nature and subject of the things we think about changes too. But what rarely changes is our tendency to hold on to memories – creating them, nurturing them, and living in them.
And the past is important. The past is the reason for who and what you are today. Despite the fictions that make up the past, it is an event that occurred. If we cannot ignore the inheritance of the family, the community, and the world that we are brought into, there is no use in ignoring our own personal histories. But the stories we tell ourselves about the past are important because they inevitably affect how and whether we will choose to live in the present.
I find that many of us, at many points in time, but especially in our weakest moments, become victims of our past. And I think we do this because it is easy. It is easy to accept that there are certain mistakes you just can’t help but make, it is easy to think that there is a specific kind of suffering that must be meant for you, and it is easy to believe there are certain things in life that are just on the cards because they appear to keep happening to you. It is easy, I think, to become a victim of your past.
But surely our humanity is much stronger than this. Surely, with enough resilience and humility and courage, we can escape the mentality of believing that our past has to define who we are today, who we choose to be today. It’s a cliché but the truth is we cannot change our past. And when I really think about it, when I am strong enough to look at myself in the mirror and accept the person I see, I don’t think I would change my past. Every situation, every moment, no matter what kind of pain it left, is something that has brought us to today. And even if your today is not the greatest day, it is still a day you can have hope and faith and love; today is still a day you get to choose.
When I was in college, I used to have a poster on the wall with those words about watching your thoughts because they become your words and actions and character, and eventually your destiny. I think it’s true. So as we tell ourselves the stories of our past, as we create memories, as we try to be accepting of the things we cannot change including our regrets, I think it is worth it to always have a heart that is open to living today.
We carry so much baggage and burden and pain from our past, at least I know I do. That is of course when we’re not trying to create a story of the past in which we remember it as better than it really was. The best thing we can do about the past, I think, is to mostly leave it alone. Perhaps we can reach out for it when we need to recall a lesson, and we can consider it for the moments of gratitude and joy and love that we received; and we can accept it for the story we tell ourselves it was. But whatever that story is, your past needn’t be your destiny.