The Past is Not the Past

There are certain people who, when any sort of suffering from the past comes up in conversation, will offer advice like, “Well, the past is the past,”  “But that was then, and now you’ve got to just move on,” or “You can’t keep dwelling on the past.”

There is a kernel of truth to this. Pascal famously penned in his Pensees,

We do not rest satisfied with the present. We anticipate the future as too slow in coming, as if in order to hasten its course; or we recall the past, to stop its too rapid flight. So imprudent are we that we wander in the times which are not ours and do not think of the only one which belongs to us; and so idle are we that we dream of those times which are no more and thoughtlessly overlook that which alone exists.

The only time that belongs to us is the present, and that is where we must live.

However, what we can often fail to recognize is that our experience of the present and even of the future is determined to an enormous degree upon our past. We spend our lives learning, figuring out how to make sense of the world, and we gradually come to make a sort of scheme for how it all fits together in our heads. We know to stop at the red lights because we were told to in the past (and perhaps because we failed to do so once and did not like the result!). We know what our friends are like and even in general how people behave because we have spent time with them in the past. We know how to get to work because we have driven the route many times before in the past. How we live in the present and how we will live in the future are dependent upon the past.

Not that the past determines our every action and experience. We still possess free will, yet that free will is bounded not only by the limitations of our physical bodies, but also by our experiences. Few in, say, the 16th century would be capable of imagining stock car racing or an iPhone. It is quite possible, yet unlikely and difficult. Yet now, most anyone in America could imagine them with no trouble at all because they had already experienced them. Past experience opened up new avenues for ways of experiencing the present.

spiritual formation, past, present, future, brain, neuroscience, redemption, Pascal, Pensees, remembrance

* Image Copyright Andi Sidwell

But this is part of where sin and suffering in the past becomes a problem. Our present experience and behavior can be deeply impacted by those pieces of our past. We react to the world as dangerous because that is how it has been for us. We feel that we are unloved, lonely, or hurting, sometimes for what seems like no reason at all, but in truth because our unloved, lonely, or hurting past is still pushing its way into the now. We lash out, give in to temptation, covet what we do not have, lie, cheat, and steal in part because we have done so, seen it done, or otherwise learned in the past how to respond to where we found ourselves then and, in some congruent way, find ourselves again now.

This is how the brain works. We learned that 2+2=4 because we saw this once, making certain nerves fire together, and each time they fired together, it got easier for it to happen again until now when we see 2+2, they fire so quickly and with so little effort that 4 seems to pop up automatically. We also may have learned that, say, when people grow too close, they hurt us or when circumstances are really tough, a quick lie will take the heat off, and now when people are close again, our neurons for hurt, guilt, shame, and loneliness begin to fire, and when we’re in another rough spot, our neurons are already beginning to create stories, ready for us to tell. The past is not the past. It has bled into the present, even usurped the present, and it is shaping our future.

Of course, the more we are consciously aware this is happening, the less power it seems to have and the more we can choose to shape our experience of the future differently. When we know the present is reflecting the past and that we’re going to hurt, we can make a little more sense of things and reframe our experience and give our minds a way to create a little distance. When we know we’re going to be tempted, we can set up boundaries to help ourselves and acknowledge the past’s influence and grab hold of what is true right now. The very fact that we are aware that the past has bled into the present means that other neurons are firing along with the old bundles. New patterns of nerves form, and the possibility of more newness becomes possible. Recognition itself is the beginning of change.

Maybe this is one of the reasons God likes to point to the past. He frequently tells us to remember. “Set up an altar here so that you will remember what happened in this place.” “Set this as the beginning of your calendar, and held a remembrance of it each year so that you will remember what I did for you in Egypt.” “Do this in remembrance of Me.” God knows we are carried along by our pasts, and He knows that looking at the past can change the future. We must turn to the past and understand it well for it to not take over the now.

Which only makes sense in the bundle of paradoxes that make up our life with God. Do you want to be first? Be last. Do you want to be exalted? Humble yourself. Do you want to be free in the future? Move into your past.

What does this feel like to you? Does the idea sound foreign? Crazy? Absurd? Frustrating? Frightening? Are there parts of your past that you don’t want to spent time dealing with or looking at? Could those parts be impacting the present? Does it change anything to imagine that God is with you as you might look into the past?


3 responses

  1. I’ve been learning this, lately, and it’s been influencing a lot of the choices I’ve been making. It’s made me more willing (also more wanting) to work through past things, to make sure that the things that I carry into the present are as they should be in my head. By being honest and willing to embrace that those past things have an impact on how I view present and future things, I came to know that one of the best things that I could do for my head and heart (and maybe faith) was to handle these past things. Not live in them. Just deal with them. Turns out, even suppressing them doesn’t change that they will affect my presesnt.

    April 17, 2013 at 12:16 pm

    • You’re very welcome for the post, Ariana. I’m glad you find it useful.
      That honesty and willingness are powerful, and it sounds like you’re doing well to embrace them. May God you into a freer walk with Him in the present and future!

      April 17, 2013 at 4:03 pm

  2. Oh, and so I meant to say thank you for posting this, because it was good for me to hear outside of my own brain 🙂

    April 17, 2013 at 12:16 pm

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