Living With the Past and Freedom From It?
Our past is host to many memories and stories. Past moments of our lives can bring about a plethora of thoughts and feelings. Some of my most favorite memories are of the many adventures my wife and I have done together. Although I’m grateful that I have a lot of fond memories from my past, I have other memories that are difficult to look at. These memories serve as reminders of my bad choices, disappointment, my sin, and failure. I’m sure that if you’re reading this, there’s a chance that you too have struggled with past moments and situations in your life.
People put on a front and cover up those less than pleasing things when interacting with others. I see these personas when I am at church or out eating and in front of others. We put on our best clothes and our biggest smiles acting like we have it all together. Sometimes we overcompensate by being overly joyful or talking too much. Most people can see right through it, yet we continue the charade of keeping the mask on that tells the world that everything is ok in our life.
I see it when I meet with clients. But a few sessions in, that’s when the mask starts to drop and they begin to reveal that on the inside, they don’t have it all together. Most of their feelings of insecurity, sadness, guilt or shame were rooted in the past. Past behavior, past hurts, and pain. They struggle to live in the present because they are stuck, living in the history of their life. It could be about anything. Perhaps they were fired from a job for making a mistake. Maybe they hid a family secret or even a secret of their own like an addiction or bad relationship.
I recall when I was in college; I attended a support group called Adult Children of Alcoholics. There were people in attendance that were 60 years or older. For the first time in their life, they were dealing with things that impacted them from 30-40 years before. Some of them had been carrying their past on their backs like a heavy bag of boulders that represented their most painful and difficult memories. They became prisoners of those things that preceded their present. There was no freedom to live in the here and now and look forward to the future as long as they were shackled to their heavy load. I had my own heavy bag of memories but when I observed the struggle those people went through, I knew I had to let go of that heavy bag before it became heavier or buried me under the weight. The chains had to drop and I had to find my freedom.
The question then becomes how? How do we let it go? Sometimes we don’t even know what bothers us. Often, the answer is buried under years of repressing and concealment. All we know is that something is causing us pain or emotional insanity. We get to the point of being sick and tired of what we are going through. That might lead us in seeking out extra help like a counselor or a support group. Counseling often stirs things up and one of the consequences of that is that we may feel pain. That’s difficult for most of us. We don’t like to feel pain.
However, it is through the pain that we begin to find a way out. Finding that freedom from our past comes from 2 essential building blocks: Acceptance and forgiveness. We’ll tackle these one at a time.
One the biggest stumbling blocks to moving forward are denial. We deny the reality to what occurred. We make excuses or we self-medicate to avoid acknowledging the truth. Once we can find acceptance, then there is a measure of peace that gives us strength in saying, this happened. Or I did this. There can be no moving forward without this. I have worked with clients that struggled with addiction, PTSD, and were perpetrators to abuse or were victims of someone else’s violence. The first step to their healing began with bravely confronting the past and saying, I will face this, no matter what! What things in your past do you need courage to face?
Michael J. Fox is best known for his role as Alex Keaton on the 80s sitcom Family Ties and the Back to The Future trilogy however in his personal life, he has battled with Parkinson’s disease. He was diagnosed in 1991 and he had to face that his life would never be the same. He had this great thought on acceptance. Acceptance doesn’t mean resignation; it means understanding that something is what it is and that there’s got to be a way through it. For many of us, after acceptance, the way through to finding freedom from the past points to forgiveness.
There are two kinds of forgiveness: Self-forgiveness and forgiving others. In acceptance, we face reality and what happened. In self-forgiveness, we own the responsibility of what the flaw or mistake was that we committed. I was fired from my first counseling job because I made a mistake. After about 6 weeks of struggling with guilt, self-condemnation and the shame over my actions, I was at my lowest. I had to be broken. In my brokenness, I found some scripture that allowed to me work through that difficult time. They gave me hope for the future. God wasn’t done with me. Perhaps they can help you.
Jeremiah 8:4: Jeremiah, say this to the people of Judah: This is what the Lord says: You know if a man falls down, he gets up again. And if a man goes the wrong way, he turns around and comes back.
Philippians 3:13-14: Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself to have attained this. Instead, I am single-minded: Forgetting the things that are behind and reaching out for the things that are ahead, with this goal in mind, I strive toward the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
Self-forgiveness and accepting Gods forgiveness didn’t take away the action or the consequence. But it allowed me to live with what happened. Now when I look back, it is merely an event in my life. I no longer have feelings of guilt and failure. I’ve learned and moved on from it. It no longer holds me as a prisoner.
Johnny Cash once said this about our failures of the past: You build on failure. You use it as a stepping stone. Close the door on the past. You don’t try to forget the mistakes, but you don’t dwell on it. You don’t let it have any of your energy, or any of your time, or any of your space.
We have talked about self-forgiveness but what about forgiving others. When someone has wronged us, forgiveness can be one of the most difficult things we do. For some, it seems impossible and creates a paralysis in even thinking about it and for others; they have tasted a freedom and release of bitterness and hate.
Carolyn Holderread Heggen wrote the book Sexual Abuse: in Christian Homes and Churches. While the book focuses on abuse in the church and home, you can apply her words to your own journey of forgiving others. She writes that offering the offenders forgiveness is not forgetting and it’s not about letting them off the hook. She said that while extending forgiveness is a profoundly spiritual act and can bring spiritual growth, it is not a way of avoiding the pain. It is not done quickly or flippantly to avoid the terror of woundedness.”
So if you’re struggling to come to the point of forgiveness, there is no timetable when such a thing should occur. Talking to a counselor can help to begin this. The author notes that forgiveness “is a process that allows the victim to let go of the intense emotional pain associated with the abuse/offense and replace it with inner resolution and peace.” She indicates that sometimes the abuser may not be repentant and then forgiveness becomes the process of letting go of the pain and bitterness to God’s care.
We must choose forgiveness–either live with it as it begins to burn bitterness and resentment onto our heart or be willing to give our burden over to a higher power. That requires actively exercising our faith by asking God to help us to work through that struggle to forgive. Al-Anon has a saying, “Let go and let God.” When we let go of this burden and place it into Gods care, the transformation begins and like spring bringing new life to the land, so too does God brings us a new life and peace to our heart.
If you are struggling to find freedom and relief from where you are currently at in life or from your past, I can help. Perhaps you are struggling to forgive or maybe you have been in denial on certain things. Contact Armstrong Family Counseling and let us help you begin the road to recovery and independence.