When the past wants something from you
Updated: Jul 13, 2019
The past can be a bully.
A bullying librarian to be precise.
It stands there, brooding at you. In front of row after row of hardback books. Each one adding to the collective stare. Looking down at you. Never up at you; always down. Each spine hiding something. Each letter in the title glaring. Even the font is judgemental.
Just like the librarian. Just like the past.
Each book is a memory of past events, circumstances, decisions, choices. Some led to triumphs, some to defeats. A library of regrets, losses, shameful moments, joyful moments.
The trouble is, each memory, each book, looks the same unless you pull it down and open it up.
But of course, you don’t have to. The librarian is quite happy to do it for you, even when you don’t want them to. Especially when you don't want them too.
Even then, the story inside the book you’re handed isn’t an accurate reflection of what actually happened. In fact it’s likely you won’t even read beyond the first chapter, possibly even the first few words. The librarian will distract you. They won't let you get as far the facts of what actually happened.
Instead those first few glimpses of the story will be enough to pound you with how you felt. The strongest emotions, facts be damned.
It may be that you’ll remember the pure bliss of holding your child for the first time, and not the stress of the doctors rushing in when she didn’t draw a breath as she was supposed to and they swarmed her with medical instruments, jargon and life saving procedures.
But I suspect the librarian will force you to read only about the terror you felt.
It may be that you’ll feel the rush of pride and achievement as you walked up to the podium to accept your degree. Or it may be that the first recollection of that story only reminds you of the anxiety of being away from home. A feeling of loneliness that you still feel today.
It’s possible that a book about a long ago friendship simply dredges up feelings of disappointment. Of lost opportunities for meaningful connections because of words said in haste, or a misunderstanding that was never resolved. Instead of reading on and remembering all the years of support, comfort, fun and laughs, you simply don’t get beyond the gripping first line that floods you with frustration and anger, even after many years.
The past is a bully. It doesn’t want you to move forward. It doesn’t want you to prove you can achieve more than they have. Bullies often lash out because they see something they don’t understand or are afraid of. The past is afraid you’ll move beyond it. Forget it. Prove yourself better than it.
So it smacks you over the head with a stick made of the most powerful, most poignant feelings. It wants you back in your box. Back in the library where it’s safe. Comfortable. To stop you grasping for something it can’t understand.
But bullies can be beaten.
You could try fighting back, standing up to it.
You could snatch the books from the librarian. Devour each word. Absorb the story. The whole story. Relive it. Take a lesson from each word, each sentence, each paragraph, each theme, each message. Reread it again. And again.
Trouble is, that book isn’t the real story. The story you read will have changed from the one you experienced. In fact, the one you experienced isn’t the one that happened. That story about the doctors rushing in to help your child that couldn’t breath? That’s not how it happened. You don’t know how many doctors there were. It felt like a lot at the time, but you were torn between your wife crying out and your daughter being swept away. You were confused, hurt even that you couldn’t help. At the time it felt like it was about your daughter. You viewed the story through your concern for her. As time went on and you reread that story you felt shame that you hadn’t done more. That you hadn’t even consoled your wife. That you were just struck with inaction instead of support. All you remember now is that you reacted in a way that makes you feel ashamed.
All of those stories are true, but also none of them are. Each has been retold through different perceptions, different understandings and filters. Each time the context of your life has been slightly different.
You’d taken the book of that moment and beat yourself with it. You basically did the bullies job for them.
So, the past is also a clever, manipulative bully. Treating it as it treats you isn’t likely to work.
How about ignoring the bully then?
The trouble with ignoring things is it doesn’t make them go away. They’re still there. No matter how strong willed you are, having someone poke you regularly saying ‘here’s a book you should read’, or ‘READ THIS NOW’, will, at best get annoying, at worst cause you to snap. Ignoring something takes energy. More importantly it takes negative energy. Saying ‘I’ll take a different route today so I don’t see the bully’, or ‘I don’t want to remember that’, or ‘I don’t want to dwell on that’, is you dragging yourself away from something. You only get so much energy, it’s got to be better to use it positively.
To move towards something rather than away.
Okay Then. Would asking the bully to get on with it in the quickest way possible work instead?
Don’t just take the book to beat yourself with it: ask the bully to read it to you. Accept your punishment but try and limit the damage. Sit and really listen to them as they narrate the story in a gravely voice that evokes the best story-telling traditions. Immerse yourself to find all the possible lessons the memory could teach you.
Trouble is bullies lie. It’s not really any different to you reading the story yourself. They’ll twist what happened. Distort it. Even if they did regurgitate it fact for fact, the chances are you wouldn’t believe them anyway. You’ve already decided they’re a bully. You’re just trying to make friends so they’ll leave you alone. You’ve already made your mind up as to what happened. The bully won’t give you any insight. Just listening to the bully will only make the feelings you experienced stronger. Harder to resist.
So, what do you do?
First up, don’t think of the past as a bully. Think of it as a friend, even when it acts like a bully. If you shift the way you think of the past, treating it with gratitude for the way it’s shaped you, thanking it for the lessons it’s taught you, you remove some of its power. You start to erode its control. When that book glares down at you and you sneak a peak at the first few words of that memory, gently close the book, feel the feeling, then thank it. That simple act will shock the bully, buying you time to take action.
What’s the best action to take then?
Well, don’t get more upset. Or angrier. Or sadder. Or even happier. The best action is simply to get curious.
Ask what you feel about the way you were feeling? What do you feel about feeling sad that time you were spoken to like that? What do you feel about feeling shame that time you let people down?
Think about why you feel it.
Don’t feel sad about remembering being sad. Don’t feel shameful about remembering shame. Get curious about the feelings. See where the curiosity takes you, not the feeling itself.
The feeling is the bully. Pulling you back. Holding you back.
The curiosity is you. Moving forward. Growing.
Acknowledge the past. Skim it for the feeling, the core lesson, but understand that feeling was then, when the story was first written. Time to make new feelings. New stories. Recognise the role it played in shaping who you are, but don’t let it define who you will be.
Thank the librarian, gently take the book from their hands, read the synopsis, then walk on.
Go write a sequel.
“Picking up all of me from my past, making it proud, and striding with him into the future”
The SHED Method, by Sara Milne Rowe