“One thing it’s taken me most of my life to learn is that the past is only relevant if we use it to define our future. Otherwise it’s just a dead memory.”
I recently wrote these words to someone that I hadn’t spoken to in years. At that last occasion our words to one another we were full of anger and hurt. After that experience I never imagined that we would ever speak again. Therefore I was both surprised and amazed when she had the courage to make contact after such a long time. I was a little frightened too. Facing up to your past isn’t easy. She deserves the kudos!
What my friend and I share is sensitivity when it comes to our respective histories. We both carry emotional wounds, many that pre-date our first meeting. The problem –and I suspect it’s a problem everyone faces – is that for many years we have struggled not to allow past hurts to shape our respective futures. That’s easier said than done.
I can’t speak for my friend nor would I ever condescend to do so. In many ways her experiences and mine are radically different so I can only speak of my own sentiments. The natural course of life can harden the individual, and I too have become harder. I’m not the kind of person who forgives but I think I’ve discovered something better. It’s called acceptance.
I’ve always believed forgiveness to be a form of weakness, something that I am neither deserving of nor entitled to give. It took me a long time to reconcile tolerance with personal strength and duty. After all, when do you draw the line being tolerant towards someone who has hurt you or caused you knowingly or unknowingly harm?
I also lied to my friend when I said that memories are dead. However they are abstract. You can’t kill an abstract and you can’t change the past. The healthiest option is to try and learn from it and not allow past hurts to shape who you are as a person. That’s where acceptance comes in.
The most profound mistake every human being makes is not accepting who they are. By extension they fail to accept others for who they are or to accept the world for what it truly is.
I’ve learned to accept that I’m not perfect and that I’ve made mistakes and will no doubt make many more before I die. I’ve accepted my capacity to be hurt and to cause hurt in turn. I’ve also accepted this about other people. I don’t make these statements out of any sense of pride or shame. I have simply learned to embrace my humanity and the humanity of others. When it comes to mistakes its important to recognise the difference between and error and true mistake. We all make errors. An error only becomes a mistake when it neither acknowledged nor corrected.
That doesn’t mean that we should tolerate wrongdoing or forgive those who have wronged us but we can move on from the bad experiences. Far better that we accept what has happened and accept the individuals who have wronged us for everything they are and not just the bad stuff.
Like everyone I struggle to find that balance every day. I hate and I love and I yearn and feel joy. People close to me have told me I should let go of my hatreds. But isn’t the best form of hatred indifference from a place of emotional and psychological strength? Isn’t the best kind of love, the kind that is unconditional and built on respect rather than necessity? From there, hatreds become redundant and meaningless and love powerful and full of warmth.
Struggling to achieve this balance is difficult. But without that struggle we would never know or appreciate love or compassion or the myriad of emotions that make life worth living. Acceptance isn’t easy but then neither is being human. We may not always live up to the standards we set ourselves, but through acknowledging our humanity we can also find a way to save ourselves.
I don’t like considering “what-ifs”. Such actions are redundant. But if I could go back in time with my friend there are many things I would have said and done differently.
But the past is the past, and having learned from it I would rather consider the present and the future. And what I can say to my friend now is that no matter what hurts were caused I have been enriched by her presence in my life.
There are many experiences from which I carry sadness and anger – I’m hardly the only human being who struggles with these feelings! I grapple too with many regrets.
However whereas in the past I might have allowed past grief to drag me down, I recognise that I can move forward carrying the burden of experience with all its good and bad parts. Some days it’s harder than others. So on those days I simply find a way to remind myself that the bad experiences are like scars. The wounds have healed over. More importantly, those scars serve as reminders of where I’ve been and what I’ve been through and not who I am.
Experience can define our perspective on life but so too can commonsense, reason and compassion. Of the last it’s paramount to feel that towards ourselves and others and that despite all the pain that life throws at us, each and every one of us is in our own way pretty wonderful.