Obsessing on our Past

A difficult task for most humans is to not go back in time and wish we could have done something different, or maybe had more control over something that happened to us. It’s easy to slip in to that scenario even if it’s something that happened decades ago. Case in point: I have a sister-in-law who I was very close to. I had recently remarried for the second time but my husband was old enough to be my father and also very insecure and jealous. He knew I was still in love with my ex-husband, an alcoholic who had brought our marriage to the brink of disaster. To try to ward off a possible unpleasantry I asked my sister-in-law if I could keep my wedding gown and veil from that first marriage at her house. She said that was fine, she’d store it in her garage. A couple years later she called and asked if I’d let her cut my wedding dress down to make a Halloween costume for her daughter. I was appalled. Absolutely not I said, I’m saving that for my daughter to wear at her wedding. Please don’t touch it. She agreed. I told her I’d pick it up next chance I had. A few weeks later I went down to get it. She said she couldn’t find it; she had no idea what had happened to it. I was upset. I’d known her to use devious ways before and wasn’t sure I believed her. I had no choice but to accept its loss but over the years my mind kept going back to that scene. In my heart I knew what had happened. When she moved several years later and it never showed up when she cleaned out her garage, I knew for sure that I should have driven immediately down to her house to get my wedding dress the minute she’d asked to cut it down for her daughter. That dress meant so much to me and to this day, more than 50 years later I still obsess on my stupidity. Why? I’ll never get the dress back; she will never admit to what she did and apologize. It’s gone. Yet my mind still returns over and over to that day. What am I gaining from this?

Pretty stupid, right? Yet how many of us have scenes from our past that are similar some larger in scope and some even more meaningless. Why do we do this to ourselves? Is it a female characteristic? My husband says, “it’s done, leave it alone.” He rarely seems to return in his mind to past hurts. Yet even he has moments he periodically brings up, his previous disappointment or anger resurfacing. Then he lets it go. Not me. I can’t seem to let it go.

I keep trying to find bits of wisdom that can help me get rid of that bad habit. Last night, as I lay in bed, obsessing on something from years ago that had been a landmine or a disappointment in my life I thought, backing that engine up won’t get me anywhere. Where did that come from?

In my attempt to change this behavior pattern a small truth had emerged. I spent time today thinking about reasons why people go back in time to try to relive something. Perhaps we hope to learn something from it to keep us from repeating a mistake. Maybe it satisfies some part of us that enjoys reveling in self-pity. It could be that we are clarifying a past experience to prove that it wasn’t our fault. In the case of someone who had been victimized it’s understandable. No I couldn’t call 911 the night my father raped me. They didn’t have 911 back then. I could do nothing to help myself. But when I ran away from home at the age of 18 after a beating from my father that almost killed me I did do something and be proud of my choice.

Over the years I’ve developed various mottos that have helped me on my journey. One of them is, “don’t look back except to learn; don’t look ahead except to plan”. This is truly a case of physician, heal thyself! As my soul draws closer to dropping my body and entering the next life I think about time. What do I want to do with what is left? It is one thing to think deeply about life and what it means. It is another to waste our time obsessing on past experiences that have, as my daughter says, taken up free rent in our head. Wouldn’t I rather look at cherished memories, read a good book, listen to great music, walk my puppy as I say my morning prayers and envision my future goals? How about noticing everything of value, especially things of God – trees, rivers, flowers, a child’s smile, the eyes of the elderly, a conversation overheard that tickles you, a kind word for a Walmart check out worker who looks tired and too elderly to be working.

Robert Louis Stevenson said, “The world is so full of a number of things, I’m sure we should all be happy as kings.” I don’t think he was referring to obsessing on past grievances. I want to end with this additional piece of wisdom by Benjamin Disraeli, part of something he wrote titled: Life is Too Short to be Little.

In a sense, little is the perfect description of how we live our day-to-day lives. We spend so much time worrying what others will think; about the little things, that we forget to take a step back and put life in perspective. Life is too short to be all consumed with things that are ultimately insignificant. 

Life is too short to worry about nonsense, like how others perceive you. It is too short to be obsessed with people who don’t value you and recognize your worth. And life is certainly too short to not thank each and every person who has shaped your life in some way. Whether they made you laugh, made you cry, taught you a lesson, or just held a door, each person who crosses your path in life serves a purpose, and a purpose not to be overlooked. We don’t have all the answers. None of us do. We are all still learning each and every day. 


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