Embracing the Past for a Better Present

A while ago I heard someone say, “Don’t look back, you are not going that way.” Although I can appreciate the message being portrayed here and the positive intent behind it, this statement bothered me. I think the main reason I had an issue with this is that I know now, more than ever, the power that ‘looking back’ actually has. Incorporating the past with a person’s present actually empowers them to secure a better future in ways that we may not understand at the time. This does not mean we should live in the past, or wallow there; however we do need to spend some time in that space if we are going to move forward. Creating an awareness of things that have happened to us is useful in creating an action plan, but it actually goes deeper than that.

It is important to understand that not all of our past experiences are negative. There will be some negativity of course, but there will also be successes, excitement, euphoria. Do we really want to discount all emotions just to avoid some discomfort, or is it possible to learn from them? We draw on all of the experiences we have had whether they are positive, negative, or neutral. We apply what we have learned from our past to connect us to our present endeavors. By denying these experiences, we lose out on true and authentic connection. Essentially, we lose the ability to be present in our lives.

I can illustrate this by two different stories. Several years ago during a move to a new town, I arrived at my newly rented house and discovered my landlord dead on the living room floor. I cannot even describe the emotions I had experienced from this. Due to reasons I will not describe here, we did not leave. Instead, we hired a cleaning company to make it livable and we stayed in the home for roughly a year. This incident caused both simple and complex trauma for me; I lived with a lot of different emotions even years after moving out, but I did eventually find ways to heal from this.

Another story I carry in my past is the opportunity I had received in my college days to teach English abroad in Beijing China for a summer. I learned a lot about culture and differences, but I also learned we have a similarity about us as human beings. We love. We share. We connect. I think it does not matter where we reside in the world, we have similar hopes and dreams – as human beings, we generally do want to make a difference in some way. Not only did I get to experience China and the wonderful people there, I also got to work with educators from around the world and experience their home culture through meaningful interactions.

Both of these experiences affected me in profound ways, and I have taken many positive attributes from both experiences. In the first example, although the experience itself was negative, I learned how to recognize and work though trauma. I learned to process emotion, and I got to know myself on levels that may not have happened if I hadn’t gone through this experience. I carry this man with me wherever I go; he is a part of who I have become. He has taught me many things including how to be a better counsellor, but also how to be a better human being. The experience in China helped me become more comfortable with isolation, taught me greater independence, and increased my resiliency. I learned how to build and maintain relationships both professionally and personally.

In both experiences, I learned about connection. The former taught me how to disconnect. I ran. I avoided. I refused to feel. But, when this was no longer working, I had no choice but to address it, and when that happened I went all in. I let myself feel. And I grew from the experience in more ways than I ever imagined I would. The latter taught me connection by forcing me to interact. I knew no one when I arrived in China, but I left with a wealth of experiences and connections to people I will always treasure.

Now when I hear people talk about not looking back, I challenge this thinking, because the past does so much good for us. We can no longer “live” there; we have overstayed our welcome. But, it doesn’t mean we can’t reflect. Even in the face of experiences we would rather not have, we can find strength in connection. And, we can use those experiences to help us move forward.

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