People love clichés. (Is that a cliché?) People especially love clichés that are centered on not focusing on the past, their past. “Yesterday is a history, tomorrow is a mystery…” You can finish that one on your own. Or perhaps think of another phrase that emphasizes that the here and now, or the future, are the only things that matter.
I disagree. In fact, I think it is dishonest to pretend your past doesn’t matter. I would even go as far as saying that people’s lack of attentiveness to history – both their own, and human histories entirely – are why many fail in understanding themselves and the parts of the human experience available to human comprehension. The past is powerful.
The past makes a difference for many reasons but two, I think, are most important. The first is that our histories – our pasts – greatly shape who we are and what we believe. The second is that we can (and should) utilize the past to determine who we want to become. Interestingly, or maybe uninterestingly, the future and present are better approached when the past is understood.
Consider your childhood. How did your parents relationship with each other affect your views on love and commitment? How did the way your parents handle their finances play a role in how you handle money? The adults you were surrounded by – their interests, their conversations, their behaviors – how did they affect you? Ponder this carefully and you will realize the role of your past environments.
Then of course, there are your individual experiences. Things that occurred to you specifically once you existed in different environments; took on multiple identities, and found yourself being you. The failures you have experienced, the joys you have encountered, the love(s) you have enjoyed, the rejections you have endured – all these things have made you, you. Your past is a part of you and pretending it isn’t, is futile.
Many people never make peace with their past. They don’t come to terms with the trials that have made them weary or angry or cautious. Or they re-imagine the past with a romanticism that forgets the their past was probably as much a time of suffering as it was of joy. Regardless of time and space, one can be certain that there will always be suffering and joy.
The power of the past is that it can teach us how we approach the suffering and joys of our existence. It teaches us where we have fallen – and where we can avoid falling the next time. It can teach us how to obtain the things that bring us happiness in new ways. The past reminds us of what we have overcome, but more importantly, that we can overcome.
In my personal life, I have found the past useful in times of facing new trials – often reminding myself of a certain state of mind. The state being I have been through this before, I can go through it again. The this is not specific to whatever challenges are present or sure to come, but rather whatever the challenge, my past has likely prepared me to meet it. The past then becomes my source of bravery, the armour I put on; the past become my faith and my hope. The past is my strength.
The past, however, must be put in its place. I propose to let it be a guide that serves your present convictions and your future desires – not inhibit either of these things. Your past, after all, is a collection of fictional memories. But memories matter very much. Indeed, memories are all that we have; memories are all that we eventually become.