December 31

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The Power of the Past, Future, and Present – Part 1 of 3 – The Past


This post is the first of a three-part series on the power of the past, future, and present.

Past, future and present may seem a little out of order, but there is a specific reason for discussing the present last. As important as the past and the future are in our lives, their only purpose is to guide what we do in the present. Therefore, to properly understand the power of the present, it is first necessary to understand the power of the past and the future.

Let’s start with the power of the past.

Two Ways the Past is Powerful

First, the past brought you to where you are today. Everything in your past led you to your current circumstances. All of your beliefs, thoughts, and experiences come from your past. They shaped your identity and guided your decision making.

Your current physical health, career position, financial state, relationship quality, and general state of well-being have all been determined by your past. Everything about you in the present moment is defined by your past.

Second, the past shapes your thinking in the present moment. Because your beliefs and thought patterns were developed during your past, you usually use them to decide what you will do in the present moment.

How you react to situations and what you decide to do each day is guided by past beliefs and thinking patterns. Psychologists tell us that 95% of what we think and do each day are repetitive thoughts and actions of previous days. Most of what we do each day is determined by our habits and automatic thoughts.

Habits and automatic thoughts are useful because they require very little brain energy. This leaves more energy for tasks that require a lot of mental focus like problem-solving and decision-making.

Two Ways the Past is Dangerous

While the past is powerful, it is also dangerous in two specific ways.

First, if we are not mindful of our past, then we will live our life guided by the default thinking of our past. When we allow our habits and automatic thoughts to determine the course of our lives, we live our life by default.

We in a sense become slaves to our past. But, like the circus elephant who has been trained to stay in place with a rope and peg in the ground, the limitations are only in our mind. The bonds of slavery are easily broken by simply becoming aware of our past patterns and choosing a different path.

Second, the memories of our past are imperfect. We like to think of our brains as sophisticated computers storing information and memories. However, that’s not how our brains operate. Instead, each time we recall a memory, the memory is reconstructed. And, reconstruction is an imperfect process. It is well-known among forensic psychologists that witnesses’ memory of events is unreliable and declines as time passes.

Last week, my pastor told a story of how he was fortunate enough to act in several plays during his teenage years in his hometown community theater. For years, he told people that he was in a play with Ann Margaret. He recently found a box of memorabilia and looked at the playbills and discovered a disturbing fact. It was not Ann Margaret who was in the play, but Joanne Worley instead. Both are accomplished actresses, but Ann Margaret was a well-known sex symbol in the 1970s and 80s, and Joanne Worley was a comedian from the show Laugh-In. Somehow, Mark had confused the two actresses in his mind and told the story over and over with the wrong actress.

The Purpose of Memory

So, if human memories are so unreliable, what is the purpose of our memory?

The purpose of our memory is not to recall facts exactly as they occurred. The purpose of our memory is to hold our identity, beliefs, and life lessons so that we can use them in the present moment.

For example, we know not to touch a hot stove. It doesn’t matter if our memory is accurate about being 4 or 5 years old, or if it was at home or grandma’s house. The lesson we learned is the same. In other words, the details of the memory are not as important as the story we tell ourselves and the lessons we learned.

Stories Can Empower or Limit Us

If the purpose of memory is to keep the stories and lessons of life, the question becomes do these stories and lessons serve to help us or hurt us? Do they empower us or limit us?

As an example, let’s look at the possible stories I could tell myself about being diagnosed and treated for colorectal cancer. From the time I was diagnosed, I spent 16 months going through radiation, two surgeries, and chemotherapy. It took an additional 12 months to fully regain my energy and endurance. I have permanent side effects of the therapy. However, I am alive and able to live a mostly normal life.

Some people may choose to focus on the scars and lifestyle limitations. Others may choose to forget as much as possible about the pain and discomfort of the experience. However, I have chosen to view the experience as a positive memory teaching me the lesson of living a health-conscious life and finding a renewed passion for living, loving, and learning.

Choose the Story that Serves You Best

So, what is the difference between these three versions of the same story? Reflection and choice.

I have reflected on my past experience and chosen the version that is most useful to me. If I focus on the scars of the past, I feel disabled and disempowered. If I focus on forgetting the pain and discomfort, I have learned nothing of value that prevents it from occurring again. If instead, I choose to focus on the positive transformation, I feel energized and empowered to live a healthy life and help others do the same.

Here’s the Midlife Lesson:

The past is important because it brought you to where you are today and shapes your beliefs and thinking in the present moment. The past is dangerous because if you are not aware of it, it causes you to live your life by the patterns of the past. In addition, your memories of the past are imperfect and may influence the story or lessons you tell yourself.

You must become aware of the stories you tell yourself about the past, reflect on how those stories are currently serving you, and choose the versions and lessons that serve you best.

Here’s the Mighty Challenge of the Day:

  1. What is one area of your life where you feel dissatisfied?
  2. What experiences or memories do you have around this subject?
  3. Reflect on the stories that you currently tell yourself about this subject.
  4. Do these stories make you feel energized and empowered or do they make you feel deflated and disempowered or perhaps angry and frustrated?
  5. How can you change your perspective of these stories to serve you better so that they bring you positive energy, thoughts, and actions?

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Bruce Fleck

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