Looking Back On The Future, Looking Forward To The Past

Who are we?  Where are we going?  Where have we been?

Our sense of all that is based very much on the way we see our past and our future.  That’s obvious.  But it’s also a little deceptive.

We know that if we think our future is doomed to be grim and dismal, we will feel and act depressed in the here and now.  That depression can become a self-fulfilling prohecy: it can diminish our ability to make the best of our challenges.  We know that if we’ve suffered deeply in the past, we may end up seeing ourselves as victims.  We also know that thinking of ourselves as unfortunate or unlucky can attract even more suffering.

But how real are those futures in our mind?  How real even is the past?  Not the actual past, but the one we hold in our minds — the past that has a hold over us?   After all, The future doesn’t even exist.  Anything could happen.  True, not everything is equally likely to happen.  Whether it’s 9/11 or a winning lottery ticket, completely unexpected occurrences have come out of seemingly nowhere, transforming lives and history in their wake.

And isn’t it true that, just as we’ve counceived of our future differently at different points in our life, that we’ve also looked back and seen our pasts differently?  We constantly hear about people learning new things about themselves from old facts that were never until recently known.  Children learn they were in fact adopted, and that changes everything. DNA evidence proves a prisoner innocent.  A painful setback, seen from the future, becomes a positive turning point.

New facts surface, new understandings result: and so our interpretations of our pasts and futures change.  Isn’t this our common experience?  We all know people who were young rebels — maybe we were young rebels ourselves.  A young rebel’s experience of the past may be one of gross parental tyranny, boring and coercive schooling, and constant conflicts with authority.

But now that the very same rebel is older and a parent too, their understanding changes.  Now they realize that the harsh parent was in fact doing all they could to help, that the boring teacher was trying to provide critically important and helpful information, that their ‘cool’ rebellion was in fact shallow and self-destructive.

Divorce may be another case in point.  At the time, we may feel that our partner was at fault in every way and to blame for every problem.  But, looking back, we may see how much our own behavior had to do with theirs, and our picture of ourselves as aggrieved victims may turn into a more rounded one, as much sinning as sinned against.  Those who once inspired our hatred now inspire compassion and forgiveness.

What happened in those case?  A person’s understanding of their past has changed, and so their past has also changed.  And as their self-understanding in the present changes with it, they also change.

We’ve all gone through this in one way or another.  But it’s an experience that deeply harmonizes with the RTC approach of mind influencing body influencing mind.  Used intentionally and with awareness, it can be a powerful cognitive exercise or meditation in the RTC armory.

Consider.  Isn’t it always possible for us to look forward to a new past? After all, our opinions of what was going on in our lives long ago has repeatedly changed, hasn’t it?  Can’t you imagine a point in the future where you think of the struggles you’re currently facing or have faced in a completely different way?  Today you may feel cheated by a business partner; but tomorrow you may feel this was the starting point in beginning a new business all your own.  Today you may feel abandoned and alone, but tomorrow you may look back on these days as an oasis of peace, or as the moment when you finally tired of isolation and began to actively reach out to others.

Try it.  Think of some challenge or problem you’re currently facing, or some trauma you once faced. Imagine that in the future you are looking back at today or at that earlier episode in your life in a completely different light.  A healing, empowering light.

And if looking forward to a new past is healing, consider looking backward on the future.  We are all of us quite likely to be happy with our lives in some ways and yet wanting more in other ways.  And we are all quite likely not to be where we expected we would be ten or twenty years ago.  We would marry this person and live happily ever after, or invest in that stock and wallow in riches.  It didn’t happen quite that way, did it?  Even if it did happen, it didn’t happen quite as we imagined it.

But what does that tell us about our ability to survive and endure?  About our growing depth and judgment?  About our ability to shape new goals and wider aspirations?  About our capacity to be happy with what we have as opposed to what we daydream about.  What does it tell us about the sheer resilience of the world?  Many a science fiction novelist or media pundit foretold global nuclear war, social collapse, a Cold War that would last forever.  Where are those futures?  They passed us by.  Does looking back on those futures, those grim forebodings, not put our current fears in proportion, not help us to think in terms of hope?

Time has been called a river which carries us along whether we want to be carried along or not.  And it is like that in some ways.  But in other ways it is like a mountain peak, which allows us to see vast stretches of experience from a rich variety of angles; like an aerie that allows the eagle of one’s spirit to glide over long distant tracts of our experience and return to a high, secure home. 

Look back on your futures, and realize how much there is to cherish in your present; how much more finely you can craft newer and better futures now.  Look forward to a past that will liberate you instead of defining you.

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