By: Mary Hoofnagle
Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; begin it well and serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.” He has also said, “Be not a slave of your past—plunge into the sublime seas. Dive deep and swim far, so you shall come back with self-respect, with new power, with an advanced experience that shall explain and overlook the old.” All of us have struggled to let go of past mistakes or try to hold on to past successes. But what’s done is done. If it was glorious, we have to let go and look for new opportunities for success. If it was a disaster, we must let go of the load that weighs us down and start to soar.
Last week I examined how the character of Jay Gatsby cuts himself off from a future by clinging too tightly to the past. Today, let’s explore three ways we can let go and avoid a fate as tragic as Gatsby’s.
Recently I stumbled upon an article in which a nurse lists the top five regrets of patients on their deathbeds. It got me thinking. In order to free myself from the past, I have to learn from it. One way of staying stuck in the past is by repeating the same mistakes over and over.
So take stock of your life. Up to this point, what are your biggest regrets? What do you wish you had done differently?
Now…start doing it differently!
You can live here and now the way you wish you had lived there and then. That’s the most beautiful thing about the passage of time. We make choices every day and no matter how far we may go down the wrong road; it’s never too late to turn around.
Don’t set up camp in the glory days
The last months of your old job may look nice through rose colored glasses, but remember all the blood sweat and tears it took to get there. When you embark on a new journey, and begin to establish yourself in a new situation and accomplish new goals, you are actually in the same place you were before your last great accomplishment. Although the beginning of this new journey is more difficult than the end of your last great one, the best of this new life is yet to come. You’re building something fresh. It can be whatever you dream it to be. Whatever was still lacking in the best of your past can be fulfilled in the life you are building right now. So look at what was missing in your glory days and work to incorporate that into today. Make today the most glorious of all.
Realize that acceptance is an asset
Difficulties in the past can really drag us down. They can keep us from taking risks now because they didn’t pay off then. They can lock us into a shame spiral because of things we wish we hadn’t done. They can grip us with anger and bitterness because of what someone else has done. No matter which ghost we have haunting us, we have to release it through acceptance.
Sometimes it might feel like giving up to accept the past. But here’s the thing…
If you keep acting in response to risks that didn’t pay off, you are stuck in a scenario that is over and done. On the other hand, if you just accept that it was just those risks that didn’t pay off, you begin to believe a risk could still pay off today. So start taking risks again. It’s like a game of craps. You have to place bets on the table to get in the game. Otherwise, you’ll sit on the sidelines and watch everyone else take home your winnings.
If you hold on to something wrong you’ve done, you miss the opportunity to change and do right by someone instead. We might think we deserve punishment when we start down this spiral of shame, but we can’t make wrong things right with punishment. What it takes is penance. True remorse leads to change. You can’t change until you accept that what happened can’t be undone. So let go. Forgive yourself. The best way to make up for it is by behaving differently today, not dwelling in yesterday’s actions.
And if you don’t let go of the ways others hurt you, you aren’t punishing them, you’re only living in a present moment full of pain and agony. If you accept what happened, it doesn’t mean your excusing the behavior of others. It means that you value your heart too much to let someone else’s behavior to continue to damage it. So leave it behind. Let your present be full of joy instead. Don’t carry it with you.
For the record, it takes a great deal of strength to accept and let go. The truth is acceptance isn’t cashing in your chips; it’s investing in your future.
CAUTION: These are big tasks! I don’t mean to imply that they’re easy and you’ll be on the road to bliss at the end of this post. These are important places to start doing the work. These are tasks counselors are trained to help you navigate, but you can work them out on your own, and a journal is a great place to start.
Feel like you are caught up living in the past and need assistance moving forward into your future? You can contact us to make a counseling appointment or read about adult counseling on our service page.
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