Saturday 29 October 2016

Breathing space... Let go of the past

Living in the past changes the course of your future

Published 07/04/2015 | 02:30

A picture taken just after the liberation by the Soviet army of Aufschwitz in January 1945 shows a group of children wearing concentration camp uniforms
A picture taken just after the liberation by the Soviet army of Aufschwitz in January 1945 shows a group of children wearing concentration camp uniforms

I've started to reread Man's Search for Meaning by Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl. It chronicles the late psychiatrist's experiences in Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps and is one of those rare books that you can read again and again, each time coming away with a different message.

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It's not a memoir, however. It is a lesson in overcoming adversity. Frankl uses the suffering endured by the POWs as a microcosm for the inevitable hardships we must all face in life.

He outlines the psychological reactions experienced by his fellow inmates - which move from shock to apathy to depersonalisation - before identifying the reactions of prisoners who had literally lost the will to live. "With his loss of belief in the future," he writes, "he also lost his spiritual hold; he let himself decline and became subject to mental and physical decay."

Something else happened to these prisoners. Frankl observed that once they lost hope in the future, they retreated into the past. In his words: "A man who let himself decline because he could not see any future goal found himself occupied with retrospective thoughts." It's a fascinating insight.

What makes it even more interesting is the fact that Frankl didn't consider low spirits and lack of purpose a symptom of living in the past. No, he considered living in the past a symptom of low spirits and lack of purpose. Is this why the very elderly succumb to sentimentality and nostalgia?

We all reminisce - we all have regrets - but Frankl points to something much more entrenched. He observed that, for some, the past can be all-consuming. It's not a holiday home, or a place to retreat to on a whim. No, this is a fixed abode where the sequence of shoulda, woulda, coulda plays on repetitive loop.

Frankl's theory has echoes of Lao Tzu's philosophy: "If you are depressed you are living in the past. If you are anxious you are living in the future. If you are at peace you are living in the present." It should be noted that Frankl and Tzu are not speaking to those who occasionally like to leaf through a photo album here. They are speaking to those that live permanently in the past via obsessive thought patterns.

People that live in the past have varying preoccupations. Some reminiscence on the good auld days - the golden age of their industry or the people that they "just don't make like that anymore". Some recollect their glory days with a curious lack of modesty - "you should have seen me". Others can't forget their dark days. They dwell on past adversities with an intensity that suggests it happened only yesterday.

They never get to the point of closure. To quote F Scott Fitzgerald, they "beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past".

When we begin to think of living in the past as a decision not to move forward, we can better understand the other manifestations of this negative thought pattern.

People that are preoccupied with the way things once were tend to be drifters. They have difficulty setting goals and meeting deadlines. They think life is unfair, or rather, their life is unfair. They have difficulty forgiving - both others and themselves. Sometimes, they can become impatient, cynical and even vengeful.

There are control issues, too. They fundamentally feel that they have no control over their future, ergo they can become controlling of those around them.

Eventually, they let their past define them and, whether self-pitying or self-mythologising, their erstwhile trials and tribulations become their 'narrative identity'. Narrative identity is the psychological term for the 'who am I?' story that we construct and internalise to make sense of our lives.

Those that live in the past usually have a muddled narrative identity, with a happy ending somewhere in the middle and an inconclusive ending. It tends to be devoid of 'agency' - which is the power one has to affect his own life - and replete with 'contamination', which includes victimisation, loss, failure and betrayal. They tend to embellish the story too - omitting the bad times when it was good and vice versa.

Oft-quoted wisdom tells us that "The past is history and tomorrow is a mystery", but we need to dwell on the past to glean lessons just as we need to consider the future to make goals. In fact, studies show that those that incorporate 'silver lining' events - that is adversities that taught them lessons - into their narrative identities tend to be happier.

Remember that a balanced life story is made up of memories and dreams. Mindfulness is the buzzword of the moment, but to stop living in the past, you first need to imbue the future with a sense of possibility.

It's also helpful to ask yourself how someone who knows you well would tell your story. How does it compare to your depiction? Likewise, it's important to observe how you describe yourself when asked. Do you define yourself by the work you used to do or the tragedy you once endured? Who are you now? Right now.

We can only move on from a life event when we have separated the emotion from the experience and taken with us whatever it is we had to learn.

If you live in the past, the challenge is to transform these repetitive memories into life lessons before moving forward.

It's simply a decision not to let the things you cannot change change the course of your future.

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