Open pretty much any self-help book and somewhere in there it will talk about “letting go” of the past. It will tell you that you are not your past, that if you keep yourself trapped in it you can’t claim the glorious future waiting for you. Religion often tries to do the same thing. Some religions encourage you to “live in the present moment”, others to relinquish your past into the hands of an omnipresent god.
And that’s what so many of us are trying desperately to do. And I suppose I should clarify that we want to escape our painful pasts. Maybe you grew up behind a white picket fence with a golden lab and a father who was always around and a mother who loved you wholly—and maybe you didn’t. And maybe you’ve always been warmly accepted for your true self and loved unconditionally and never suffered loss—and maybe you haven’t. Think about those memories where you were hurt and lost and lonely and desperate and dying. No, you probably won’t. Because you know you don’t want to. Whether it’s a full sprint or a casual ambling, we’re all trying to walk away from our painful pasts. And in the same moment we’re hoping that our walk ends right in the center of the perfect future we’ve imagined.
Because most of us live in the non-functional duality of past and future. The past is finished and the future is only imaginatory. There is no tangible reality in either. And yet we run from one towards the other. Always. When describing ourselves, even as children, we describe ourselves in future form: “I’m going to be a doctor”, “I’m saving to buy a house”. These are possible futures, not present realities. But we never do this in reverse: “I was a mediocre student”, “I was an addictive gambler”. Those things we try to hide away, but they make up more of who we are than our futures, because they actually were our realities at one point. And the present is often tinged with dissatisfaction, colored by those awful pasts. So we’re always walking. We’re always trying to “move on”.
And some of the best advice I have to offer anyone, anywhere, is stop trying to move on.
For some, this advice seems crazy. For some, their pasts have not been painful enough for them to even need this advice. Those people may be doing just fine. And if that’s you, I tip my hat to you, sir.
But if you’ve been traumatized by a painful past (and I don’t mean what happened, like, yesterday), you are most likely still hurting. You are most likely still reproducing that hurt because a deeper part of yourself needs it to be acknowledged. This seems silly, but one of the truest things we can realize about ourselves. If we have a hurt, our deepest self wants it to be healed. But if we keep ignoring it, keep trying to tuck it away and skip off into our pretty futures, those futures will be doomed to repeat that hurt. That’s your self (Self, soul, inner wisdom, unconscious, whatever) screaming, “Don’t leave me here to suffer this alone! It still hurts. Come back and sit with me while we get through it.”
And we do separate these parts of ourselves. Consciously you make every effort to keep moving on (while blaming yourself for not being able to), and the other self, the unconscious one, is still bleeding. In doing that you’re abandoning that smaller, weaker, less experienced version of yourself to bleed out. But she will not do so quietly. She will do everything in her power to get you to stop, to turn around, to see her and whip out your medical kit.
Okay, enough of the metaphor. (Full disclosure: I really love metaphors.) What this means concretely is that until we address and embrace the painful past, and then begin to heal it, it will stay with us and even cause the repetition of its original hurts. You are bound to replay past traumas. You do this to yourself because they are yet unhealed. Running away from them into the dawn of tomorrow does not leave them behind. It only makes you farther away from the thing that’s screaming for your help.
Let’s concretize this even more with an example. (It’s a problem in most of these self-help things. No examples. If you want to help me help myself, you gotta tell me upfront what you actually did. Hinting is like tickling. It does nothing for the itch.) I grew up in clutter. I named myself the Clutter Critter. My house was so messy we described where things were by pile in relation to other piles. This may not seem painful, but oh brother it was. I could never invite friends over, always felt embarrassed of my home, and I would be too ashamed and uncomfortable going to their places. And so I didn’t make any friends. I would curl into the mess at home, attempting to soothe my debilitating loneliness.
And as an adult, I thought I was over it. I had moved on. I have a nice apartment, I have a husband, I have (a couple) friends. We keep the place decent. Except for more often than not our place is just messy enough that I’m too embarrassed to have anyone over. My husband might be right in arguing that the uncleanliness is not reason enough not to open up our home, to distance ourselves from our friends. But that clutter critter crying in her unwashed sheets and used tissues doesn’t see it that way. That unhealed part of me keeps my home always a touch like my childhood one, resurrecting that familiar shame, and then forcing me back into that old loneliness.
And the moral is that I as an adult, when I made the effort to “move on”, I barred myself from comforting that little girl, from healing her pains. I turned my eyes instead to the gorgeously clean home I was going to have, and I lived in that illusion, ironically frustrated by its elusiveness.
So stop trying to move on. Stop trying to let go. If you have old hurts, take them back up, look your past self in the eye and tell her that you have compassion for her pain. That’s all you need to do, and your deeper self will take it from there. Only then will you have a real shot at that future you, and that past you, are both dreaming of.
Photo by Andy Oakley