How important is it to take a journey to the past, a trip back in time to consider the things that made us who we are? How important is this state of rearward looking contemplation?
For some reason, this question is controversial. Traditionally psychologists would have believed and practiced psychotherapeutic techniques that focused on understanding childhood influence, parental dynamics, and environmental impact on present thought, belief, and action. Today there are those who question the efficacy of this. Others look at it as a useless journey to the dark, a place that only holds bad memories. A few therapies focus only on positive thinking and looking forward.
Some quote the Apostle Paul when he said, “… but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark…” (Philippians 3:13). They use this to excuse the need to go back or to face a painful past. I believe Paul had a deeper meaning here, possibly relating to the sins of the past. Interestingly enough, he uses a good part of his letter to the Galatians reviewing his past.
But practically speaking, should we spend time making that journey? From what I’ve seen in my practice, counseling, and overall work with trauma and mental health, I will say yes, it is important. But there are nuances, pitfalls, and perils that we need to be aware of when we embark down this broken road. Following are a few points to consider.
We go back in order to apologize. We all fail, we all make mistakes, we all wound others in some way, at some time. To clear our consciences and to reclaim happiness, we must go back, clear our way, and say I’m sorry. Sometimes this journey is only two minutes back, sometimes twenty years. Either way, this journey back is absolutely essential and is usually a healing journey. Often it plays a significant part in repentance and finding our way to the light of God’s salvation and grace.
The other side of apology is forgiveness. We go back to forgive a wrong, a hurt, an abuse, a weakness. In order to authentically forgive, we don’t need to necessarily understand all facets of the wrong, but we do need to accept the fact that we were wronged (especially in the case of abuse) or mistreated (as in the case of neglect or abandonment). It may have had nothing to do with us, our actions, or inactions; it certainly was not about our worth or value. Once we understand and accept this we can then let go. Forgiveness says I will no longer let this hold me captive, I am loosing the chains, I am releasing you. Often this sort of journey to the past requires divine guidance, insight, and strength.
We go back to appreciate. We look in the rear-view mirror usually to recognize God’s care and providence. We recognize and acknowledge all we’ve received from so many and we give thanks. Thank you for what you did. I appreciate what God has done. Look at how He has led us, given direction, opened some doors and closed others. This journey back plants gratitude, which has many positive effects.
We go back to understand. In dealing with emotional and/or mental illness we go back to understand. We are seeking to make a connection between what happened and how it influenced our lives in our thoughts, perspectives, and beliefs. The dark places of yesterday most certainly cast their shadows on today and often, sadly, predict our futures. Often that journey of insight plays a significant role in healing and moving on. We go back to seek and find truth. We go back to change the way we think about what happened. We go back to seek perspective.
What going back is not.
We don’t go back to wallow. It takes a fairly firm grip on the reality of the present to go back to the past and not sink in the mire. Wallowing in the past quagmire can get us stuck in the muck: in other words, caught up in chronic grief, persistent depression and sadness, anger, or resentment. When we constantly bring up old hurts and grievances, or focus on all the negative back there or fixate on the adverse environment, we are wallowing in the swamp. This does not mean all those things were not real. The point is we don’t wallow in it.
We don’t go back to blame. We often say that we go back to understand, not to blame. The trip back is not a blame game, a journey of prosecution, or a mandate to place guilt. Rather we go back to find truth about a situation. If we contemplate what happened when we were children, it gives us insight and direction. Yes, there are abuses that are blameworthy and these may need to be addressed. But the general concept here, the main aim to the journey back, is understanding, not blame.
We don’t use the past as a crutch. I went back, figured it out, and now I know why I am the way I am. I can’t help it. There’s nothing to be done. We will never run, much less fly, with these types of crutches. As long as we blame and excuse, we remain victims and will never experience victory.
The journey back is important. I have seen transformations in suffering individuals and couples who honestly and authentically take the trip back to understand. Marriages receive light and direction when a spouse begins to fathom what their partner has been through and how it has impacted their beliefs, actions, and reactions. Empathy is born from the journey back. Compassion settles in the heart, and eyes that were once hard are softened now with kindness. Perhaps once we’ve visited that place, we can then say with Paul: now I can forget the past and look forward to what lies ahead.