An Argument for Not Getting Past the Past

In the past week, I've had an unusually high number of run-ins with people from my past, people I don't see often or at all. Maybe it's just that time of year as more people are out and about, or maybe there's something bigger at play here, something I need to be looking at more closely. Whether coincidence or say, Universal intervention, it has my attention. Why these particular people? Why at this time? Why one right after the other? What is the message? What is the lesson?

The encounters I've had over the last week have been relatively benign--a couple of old friends, an ex-boyfriend, an ex-boyfriend, an ex-boyfriend (the same one, three times)--it was the sheer volume that was enough to give me pause. While each situation flagged something unpleasant in my mind--some dealing with my actions, some dealing with their actions, some a combination--each was also coupled with something joyous, a pleasant memory. That unusual shift in perspective for me, removing things from a silo of "ALL BAD" or "ALL GOOD," made me realize two things. I use my past today as:

1. A barometer of change.

The past is our only tool for measuring change. Present - Past = Change. The equation is flawed, yes, in that it is susceptible to interpretation, but that interpretation usually has more to do with perception of how much change has occurred (little, some, a lot) vs. whether any change has occurred at all. 

While most of my encounters this week with the ghosts of Kate's Past were "relatively benign," one was not. This person was not happy to see me. And while the feeling was mutual, we had very different reactions to each other. Upon seeing each other, this person's face looked mostly like this :{#%&. I immediately, on some newfound instinct, smiled, said hello, how are you, and kept walking. These niceties came pouring out of my mouth before I could justify a reason not to say them. 

Two years ago, maybe even six months ago, I would have scowled at or completely ignored the person. My instinct would not have been to be pleasant, kind even. This reaction felt so foreign to me that I wondered if the entire event had even taken place...until three days later when I had the opportunity to repeat it all over again with the same person and found myself saying, "Hi, how are you?" accompanied by a genuine smile. I almost wanted the words back. Who was this person saying these words of betrayal?

But there it was: evidence. Maybe not scientific, but anecdotal evidence, of a change in me, a shift from my past to a new present. It is both unnerving and uplifting. This fear of abandoning the old me--a comfortable but harder me--paired with the excitement of embracing a new part of me--a softer, maybe kinder me--leaves me feeling untethered. It's easy to get fixated on this idea of who we are and, for me at least, that fixation can become counterproductive. It shuts me off to opportunities for change. It takes situations like this to show me I can separate myself from my past--its characters, its situations, its habits, all of it. I can encounter my past and play a different role today.

2. An instrument of service. 

Sometimes I look back at past behaviors with shame, discomfort, and regret; or I'll look back at past events as justification for future actions and reactions, excuses for things that haven't happened yet. In either case, I am using my past as a weapon (mostly against myself) or as a crutch.


This morbid reflection takes us out of the present where we are of most use to others and ourselves. I'm not advocating that we don't look back, in fact, I think we should. If we don't look back, we can't work the equation: Present - Past = Change. However, it's the intent in which we do the looking back that I assert needs a little fine-tuning. I like to explore the past, dig around in the dirt of the over and done with, but I often do this with a good deal of judgement and despair. This doesn't help. Healing doesn't take place in this space and growth can't live here.

But when I can, to steal a phrase from my therapist, be curious and gentle, then it's a different ballgame. Now I am in a place of compassion, and compassion turns my past and my experience into the most effective tool I know for maintaining okay. That tool is service. 

More than anything else we have to offer--money, time, clout--it is our experience, individual and collective, that enables us to to connect with others, be of service to others, and to change the present. The antidote to some of the most despairing or loneliest times of my life has simply been hearing another person's experience and hearing my own in it too. 

Our pasts are our greatest assets and our most accessible means of service. When we turn our backs on our pasts or use them against ourselves, we deny ourselves opportunities to be of service to others, and selfishly, of service to ourselves. 

That's the beautiful paradox of service--the more we give away, the more we receive in return.


I'm in an on-again, off-again relationship with my past a lot of the time, but today we're mostly on. I'm grateful for the story that belongs to me that I get to share with others. I'm immensely grateful to those who have courageously shared their stories with me.

And lest you think I think I am becoming too soft, too kind, too big for my britches of change, I'll end by sharing that someone came into my office today, said something I didn't like, and my reaction looked almost exactly like this :{#%&. It's a pretty okay thing to be a work in progress.