Revisiting the Past Can Offer Clues to the Future
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” Robert Frost
My last column offered a few thoughts about our cultural past and future. This column is about charting our individual future. How can we use an understanding of our past to accept our situation or change it in a world of new options? If our life was a book, we would know most of the pages by now, yet we still have time to write the last chapters. I want to convince you to do that, not solely as an autobiography but as a guide to your future.
First, take time to visualize your memories as a path using words, symbols, drawing, etc. I used a big piece of paper but a whiteboard or a mosaic of Post-it notes works too. It’s a way to record milestones, crossroads, turns, detours, intense experiences, and dead ends.
Start with the beginning. Where were you born? Were you male, female, or in-between? How were you cared for? Did you feel safe, did you feel loved, were you supported and encouraged? Can you draw your face at 10? Fate, family, and positive and negative experiences are the bedrock of confidence and self-value.
Were there adults who boosted your sense of self: family members, neighbors, teachers, coaches? You can use color-coded stick figures or cartoon faces to identify them. Did you have friends who helped? Did you feel confident about your social place? What were your early comforts? Your sense of self by 20 is a backpack, heavy and wearing you down or lighter and easing your load.
As you add, revise, and resolve the roadside attractions of your map, it will become a coherent illustration of the path you have taken. The crossroads, where choices were made by you or others, become obvious. Most of us dream now and then about the decisions we’ve made and what might have been. I once wondered about redoing high school knowing what I now know. Would I choose the debate squad again? Did I now know how to be popular?
Follow the thought streams that may flow through your mind. Aging increases their relevance. Allow random thoughts about relationships, high points, and low points. Did you make good choices of love partners? Did they stay or go? Does it matter now? Design a symbol to mark things you think were mistakes.
Did you feel you were a good person at 30, 40, 50? I became a good person at 60. Were you living then by the values you hold now? If you had children, were you an OK parent? If you had not made that choice, would the next turn in the road have been better? Do you understand in retrospect how your psychological makeup led you to mistakes or certain choices and even violations of your values?
OK, why bother with all these introspective questions? The easy answer is that it clears your mind, quiets any demons, and frees up your energy and good feelings. Here’s an example from my life: After World War II, my mother was convinced that the future was in America. She arranged for us to emigrate. My father had been a police officer in London. His first job in America was stunning cattle with a sledgehammer at Armour Star. (He could not be a police officer because he was not yet a citizen.) He became a steelworker until a work injury opened a path to real estate sales in his 40s. His Welsh charm served him well there. People loved his stories of the mines he had worked in as a young man and his beloved police work.
And yet he was dead by 56. He rarely talked to me my entire life, then he called me from a bar the night he died. The call left me with years of guilt. He had talked of having lived all his life by choices made by others and he believed it was too late to fix his mistakes. I was 25; I didn’t know what to say. I resorted to platitudes.
Are there regrets at some of our choices? Do the losses pile up? Yes, there are accidents and tragedies. Go back over your path and mark the regrets, guilts, times of shame, misfortunes. Whenever you hit a psychological roadblock, work it through. Can you answer the “why” questions now? Can you make amends, let it go, forgive yourself, or make peace with the circumstances you were caught in then? Who are you now compared to then? If you are OK most of the time, it may not matter how it all happened.
Even with the rough times, most of us prefer our own patched-up life. Would you change places with someone thinking they had a better life than yours? Remember you have to take all of that life, body, and mind—not just pick a part here or there. We don’t really know the pains of other lives we might once have envied.
Drawing a life path can be confusing and painful, but it also brings clarity. Identifying the experiences that still wound you or surface in your dreams makes them understandable. Recognizing the good experiences and people that encouraged you—not just the bad—keeps you balanced. A change in perspective, at any age, can mitigate a hard fate, family, or past experience.
How has time changed your interpretation of the marks on your map? Play with the twists and turns of your life path. What may still be lingering as pain may have been a turning point for something better. Pain and failure are such extraordinary teachers. A new viewpoint helps us let go of the free-floating guilts and shame that can weigh us down. You have thought about it, whatever it was, and paid your dues, so just say “enough” when that thought surfaces again. Mark PAID on your map.
This is the time—there may be no other—to find ways to let go of any part of your current life that does not ring true. Who you are now is, in some ways, not who you have been. As you move through your days, let go of what you feel is false and pay attention to what is true for you. You have time to change your path, to choose your steps, clear regrets, and assuage guilt. It may be as basic as always being kind to yourself and others.
When you write your final chapters, “What is unfinished?” may be a last question. “What do I still want? Who do I want to be now? What do I care about? What feels good?” True success in life is the quality of your chosen path, not a destination. The journey’s end is, after all, the same for everyone.
When I created my life map, in my 60s as a new widow, my father’s phone call rang again in my mind. I finally realized that by his call and his suicide, he paradoxically gave me the ultimate gift a parent can offer. He reminded me to live my own life, to find my own future, to let the past go—and that has made all the difference.
Jennifer James has a doctorate in cultural anthropology and master’s degrees in history and psychology. She was a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Washington Medical School. Jennifer is the founding mother of the Committee for Children, an international organization devoted to the prevention of child abuse worldwide