Whenever it wants the past can come kicking the door down. And you never know where it's gonna take you. All you can do is hope it's a place you wanna go."
You can run all your life, and not go anywhere
Social Distortion- Ball and Chain
I was recently back home for a couple of weeks after two years living about as far away on a map a person could get. It’s a popular pastime among my friends and family members to make fun of where we come from, and I’m as bad as anyone. And yet I was oddly nostalgic and sentimental for weeks leading up to my trip home. I even watched one of my favorite shows called “October Road” about a writer who returns home to face his demons after being away for more than a decade. His editor tells him “Go home and make peace with it all.”
Stephen King- Hearts in Atlantis
Social Distortion- Ball and Chain
The past was always there, lived inside of you, and it helped to make you who you were. But it had to be placed in perspective. The past could not dominate the future.Barbara Taylor Bradford
Go home and make peace with it all.
A tall order sometimes. For many of us the past is full of skeletons we would just as well like to leave buried. My own past included a broken home, bullying, and not always finding my place. Many of us share similar narratives about the past. So we move away, or we move on, and we think those chapters are behind us.
But they’re not.
For people who suffer from depression, the past is full of regret and rumination. They constantly remind themselves of the bad choices they made, and they live there.
But for others of us it might be a little more subtle. Maybe we’re functioning just fine in some areas of our lives, but are not exactly happy. Hell most people I know fit in to this category.
And not just patients either.
Many of us search for a geographical solution to unhappiness. I may be the world’s leading example of this approach, and have moved to mountains, oceans, parks, big cities, small towns, and even a van (down by the river) looking for a quick solution. And it works! For while. Then all of our old insecurities, demons, doubts and memories slowly begin walking from the back of our minds into the forefront.
And we’re the same old person in a new place.
Which is not to say things like travel and adventure aren’t wonderful tools for resilience and growth. They’re certainly some of the best ones I know, and I use them all the time.
And yet the past waits. Sometimes it has it hand out in peace and sometimes it’s a pretty ferocious opponent we have to wrestle with.
But it’s not going anywhere.
I know this from many years working with patients who can’t seem to let go of things from their pasts, although it would certainly be healthy to do so. Often they don’t even know where to start. For people with traumatic experiences in their backgrounds, their memories often get fragmented in a way that leaves them uncomfortable in both the past as well as the present. Confronting memories this serious takes some serious work, patience and time.
But for many of us, our pasts catch up with us in ways that are a little less obvious. Maybe we were bullied as a kid and have a core belief that we aren’t good enough, so we don’t ask for that promotion at work, or take a chance on starting a new business. Maybe we were awkward and unattractive as a teenager and still hold those scars, and never let ourselves really trust someone else’s love and commitment. Or maybe we’re holding on to anger towards old friends and family for reasons related to our own perceived hurts and sights.
As a psychologist, I’ve given plenty of “advice” on this subject to others. I often say things like “forgiveness is the path to moving on” or “sometimes we have to accept the apologies we never receive.” These things sound good and are rooted in some powerful concepts.
But you know what is an even more fundamental truth about people and psychology?
Each person in an N of 1. A case study in their own lives. A complicated and unique vessel who may have needs, desires, ambitions, and memories that don’t fit so nicely with all of the traditional psychological ideas.
And that includes me as well.
So I figured if I was going to preach about this stuff, I might as well start with myself. It was time to go home, make peace with people, memories, and the past, and put some silly shit to bed.
So I had a lovely trip home catching up with friends and family. But more importantly I came to a very powerful realization. If I was going to blame my hometown for being boring or backwards or stifling, I should also give it credit for making me passionate, adventurous, and curious. And this goes for people as well. On a long enough timeline we see that everyone who comes into our lives comes with some kind of lesson. When we hold on to how they hurt us, we keep giving them power, and that is something we are going to need for the next part of our journey. If we can forgive we should. If we can’t forgive we should at least be willing to explore what the lesson was. Every experience shapes us. The good and the bad. The sweet and the sour. And so today I try to be thankful for every past hurt, broken heart, and skinned kneecap.
Because they made me who I am.
So as I settle back into my life 10,000 miles away, I smile when I think about the fun memories I just had, and look forward to my next trip back home, whenever that might be.
And I am reminded that despite changes in time, distance, and circumstances, all roads lead back home. Even if it’s just to forgive, reflect, and make peace.