Deciding On The Meaning Of Your Past

December 28, 2016
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The memory of the past can be a haunting thing. A ghost risen and unsettled – wandering aimless through the hollow spaces in our minds and projecting phantom meaning upon our lives. Because that is what the past is; a casual apparition born from experience that lingers long beyond it’s life to obscure who you could truly be.

And the ghost of the past will carry its significance as it meanders through your mind. It will drag along the regrets and the sufferings and the silent, heavy chains that bind you to a path you think you can not avoid. To that ends, the past will stop you from the present, if you give it too much life.

Despite your efforts you can not exorcise that ghastly apparition from your mind. It has a heavy clarity that makes it visible but thin. You can though slip back to those moments of your life and wonder how it all got you to where you are. You wonder what you might have become had it all been a little different. You see those past things, now set in immovable stone, and you wonder how you can change your current course given the history of it all. And through those stagnant reveries you give your past it’s faulty meaning and you think it can’t be changed.

And while it is true that the experiences of the past cannot be undone, there is a present operation that can change the meaning of it all.

We can change the meaning of our past experiences by choosing our current projects.

When Danish Philosopher Søren Kierkegaard said that “life must be lived forward and understood backwards” he neglected something very critical in his aphoristic explanation of meaning in life. While it is true that we have no other means of living life than forward, the backward understanding and meaning of it all is something we can change based upon what we decide to do every day we live life forward.

The word understanding means an assent to knowing, but the meaning of your past is more than just a recognitional knowing. The meaning should be an active remembering. It should be a participatory reliving. You say such and such happened to me then and because of that I am now this. You engage the past in such a way that you don’t give it any life. It’s just lies there unchanging and rotting in your head. 

But we need not assent to the meaning of our past as though it were some buried, lifeless thing that can only be dug up and dissected. We can create the meaning of our past everyday by undertaking things in the present that imbibe it with deeper meaning and life. 

What we decide to do in the present of our lives gives meaning to the events of our past. We get to decide, by living fully and chasing our honest ambitions and dreams, if those things that twisted and hardened us were fuel for our future successful fires or if they were the razings of our very souls.

The lying truth of the past.

The bruises of the past, though long since visible, have let their marks upon our hearts. We can feel the stretching, aching, tenderness of them as we try to reach for trust and happiness and peace. That hurt would have us confined, if we let it keep it’s meaning. Instead we have a choice, and more than that, a duty.

What we do today – the things we go after professionally or personally – the relationships we foster and cherish, the lives we choose to live – those are the things that give meaning and substance to our past. What we undertake today will change significance of what we have before endured.

And if we decide to live slowly and reluctantly – in the dark, rustling shadows of pasts obscurity, taking great pains to point out the misfortune and hardships of our youth – then that is what the past will be for us. A dark thing that casts shade on an unnecessarily dark life.

But if instead we choose to reach boldly and forcefully towards a better future, than those difficult moments of our pasts are catalysts – fire starters that ignited our lives. We can look behind us and see the sparks that were thrown of off the anvil of life as we beat our hammer against it and forged our new destiny. We are not bystanders beholden to nature’s definition of our past. We are inventors taking the scrap metal of the past that we endured and beating it to present beauty.

We can take the whole of our pasts – the twisted, smoldering, indecipherable wreckage of it all – and make it something more by deciding, today, to take upon our shoulders that burden of greatness and achievement that the past tried to steal from us. We have the chance to frame those miserable moments in a new light by choosing to embark upon projects now that give them new meaning.

What can the past look like?

You can look back upon that lost love – the one that slipped through your outstretched fingers like smoke refusing to be caught – and see in it something that was not ready to be contained. You can give that broken heart a meaning approaching fondness though, by taking the lessons you learned and deciding to move madly towards a new love – towards the possibility of love at all. One that is not an insubstantial specter of the love that you had lost, but one that is the perfect reflection of the love you always knew you could create. And in doing so, in changing the meaning of that past loss by using it for greatness today, you see that your broken heart was necessary to make you whole today.

And that poverty that had you eating hand to mouth – you can take the remembered hunger pangs and shame of having so little when those around you seemed to have so much, and you can use it as a fuel to power your want to achieve professional success. And when you have climbed that mountain of achievement, that poverty of your past will be the hallmark of your success and you will return to it with affection, as though you could not have achieved without it.

Or those childhood moments of bullying from your tormentors – you can take those terrible words and those brutal bashings and you can see in them a hardening. Like a hammer striking iron. And now you are made of a substance that can not be broken because you have been tempered to an invulnerable strength. You take back the meaning of the pain that others gave you so long ago and you turn it into the armor that you wear today.

What will you be today?

This is not about having perspective on your past. This is about creating the meaning of your past everyday by choosing to make it matter through your actions. By choosing to seek out your greatness in the present moment you are saying that your past was necessary to make you possible. You could only have come to be who you are through the struggles to which you endured and you could not be what you are without those pains and scars and hurts and miseries.

You have the responsibility to continually choose and re-choose what you are and what you have been. It is your story to tell, in the end. And in that choosing lies your strength to reclaiming a ghostly past that would have you haunted. And you are left with one last aphorism that should feed your every moment. You must choose today what you will do to make yesterday a reason, not an excuse.