One aspect of human nature is that we tend to focus on the past, on our history, “the story of my life”, rather than inhabiting the present. Sometimes it’s as if, on the voyage of our life, we are firmly planted at the back of the boat, staring fixedly at its wake. In so doing, we are subscribing to the belief that the wake drives the boat.
But a literal wake is simply the trail left behind as a boat moves forward. It is not what’s actually causing forward momentum. And it’s impossible for a literal wake to control a boat. It is also impossible to change or undo the wake.
Why then is it so challenging to view the past, our own wake, in its proper perspective? What is it about the baggage of our past that makes it so hard to fully occupy our present life?
One observation is that many of us define ourselves by our traumas, failures, experiences of abuse or neglect, dysfunctions, unwanted habits, wounds, and disappointments. But is a wounded, broken-feeling definition of ourselves nourishing? Certainly not. We likely have a stress response just thinking those labels might apply to ourself and our life. Many who have defaulted to using such labels to describe their life would agree that they do not contribute to joy, a sense of possibility, or any feelings of empowerment. But how can we break the habit of thinking this way?
Traditional psychology has been said to spring from our dysfunctional past. That may not sound like such a positive thing, but stay with me.
Psychologist James Hillman describes a system of understanding our past and thinking about it, all of it, in a positive light. He uses the illustration of an acorn, which is the blueprint for one of our planet’s most steadfast, dynamic trees.
One acorn literally has unimaginable possibilities. It touches the present, since from the one beautiful specimen it becomes, spring countless hundreds of thousands of life forms which are nourished by it or sheltered within its branches. Its roots go deep to stabilize precious topsoil, preventing erosion. It cleans the air of pollutants we humans and all our toys generate. Its shadow offers welcome relief from summer’s heat. It contributes to the future, yielding millions of acorns that will become other glorious trees as it fulfills its nature, season after season. After living out its natural existence, its wood can be used to make beautiful creations to be enjoyed by generations, or to fertilize new forest growth, or to keep us warm.
To reach that potential, the acorn has to be in the right environment, with light, fertilizer, and water available. Dr. Hillman posited that our dysfunctional past is actually necessary for our own personal acorn. That our past is the fertilizer from which growth occurs. Our past is key for unlocking the possibilities for growth, for accessing our own potential. Without the fertilizer of our past, personally and collectively, our acorn would not be able to germinate. He wrote.” If you are still being hurt by an event that happened to you at twelve, it is the thought that is hurting you now.” The only way to stop that hurt is to change our thought about the past. To learn to view experiences as something leading to growth and ultimately to finding our own purpose in life.
Within each of us, just as within an acorn, is a blueprint full of astonishing possibilities. Changing our mind about past events allows us to focus on opportunities to nourish ourselves and connect meaningfully with others. It allows us to fully occupy the present, making each day count.
Traumas become stories of survival with which to comfort ourselves and others.
Failures are re-framed as periods of exploration and growth. They hone our discenrnment and good judgement.
Past abuses and neglects are seen to reflect the soul of the perpetrator, not our own. They have no bearing on our worthiness to give or receive love.
Dysfunctions and unwanted habits become messages that point the way to areas in life that are asking for our attention and compassion.
Wounds heal, as long as we focus on the fact that the wounding event is truly over. We gratefully acknowledge the fact that both body and mind have an innate ability to heal.
Disappointments remind us of how much every aspect of life matters, and deserves our very best efforts.
As you and I grow into steadfast Oaks, whom can we shelter within our branches? Where will we cast our restful shade? Season after season, as we fulfill our nature, how can we contribute to the stabilizing of the topsoil of society be being who we truly are? With what lessons learned will we contribute to the future?