By Barney Armstrong, MA, LMHCA, Bellevue Christian Counseling
I read a quote from a poster the other day that said in essence –“Your past was a bad story that’s over, forget it and live for today.” Pretty terrible advice. For starters, people are quite unable to do that. But more importantly, having a hopeful forward-looking take on your future is substantiated when you see the Providence in your past.
If you could really see your life and all its details correctly, it would form a coherent story that not only made sense but was full of intention. Think about reading a novel. Any details the author includes have meaning—each word is carefully crafted and intentional. If a detail seems irrelevant at one moment, its full meaning will eventually become clear. For example, if a man walks with a limp in a detective story, the author has most likely included this detail as a very important clue—though you may not know why until the whole story is complete.
Seeing the Big Picture: Taking Stock of Your Memories
Think of all of the memories you have of your life so far. There are a lot of things you don’t remember that are not pertinent, but all of them that you do remember are meaningful. That’s why you remember them, they are meaningful; and… they form the details of your story. But most people don’t see the overall flow of their lives – all of the parts are separate, seemingly unrelated events; and while people do remember events their meaning is not always obvious. This can lead to a lack of meaning or purpose, hopelessness, and even depression.
How Can Counseling Help?
There are reasons individuals cannot see the big picture of their lives. Counseling can help to put the picture together. The most obvious is how a child misinterprets the world of events around him — though he is an acute observer, children may misinterpret what they see and experience. Children often blame themselves or have other fearful interpretations of events. For example, it’s common for a 7 year-old boy to blame himself for his parents’ divorce. There is a painful enough feeling to this that he will retain that 7 year-old take on the situation without reexamination. A counselor can gingerly lead him as an adult to look at past “painful” events and debunk them –“Hey, wait a minute, that wasn’t my fault! I‘ve always thought it was and I have always played my life in light of that idea.” The interpretation colored so many subsequent events that all sorts of things begin to also take on a very different look.
Looking Back with Fresh Perspective
There are some things that were told to us as kids that were not correct and we’ve never debunked them. My parents told me to never eat anything off the ground, that it was dirty. I had the impression that anything on the ground was diseased, shouldn’t be touched. It was utterly disgusting. They did this all in good faith to protect a small child from things he couldn’t understand. As an adult, I was one day picking up apples from the ground of an apple orchard to make applesauce and apple juice. The apples were perfectly fine and we were going to wash them anyway. I wondered why I felt immoral about what I was doing. It’s then that I said, “Hey wait a minute, that wasn’t true!” They had good intentions but it wasn’t true. An avid search would reveal a number of myths we picked up (pardon the pun) as kids.
There are so many things of our past that we just don’t see. Reexamining your past is like looking back on the trail of a hike you’ve been on. When you are climbing up a trail, all you can see is what is in front of you; but when you have reached your destination, you can look back and see all the things that were hidden behind that rock or a tree. In other words, from the perspective of the present, you can see the past more fully.
Looking Back with Faith (And Seeing God’s Hand in Your Past)
There are many other things that you may never see, but seeing a few of them gives you confidence that God has formed your life and it is full of His Providence. I call this looking back with faith. I have a friend who was thrilled with her Sunday school classes as a child. She came home and organized her little friends into a Sunday school class and taught them lessons. She said she regretted that she had stepped on a few toes. Especially with Karen, who was offended, and with whom her friendship was impacted. But some 40 years later, at a party with old friends, Karen came to her and announced that she had become a Christian, largely because that Sunday school class had goaded her all of these years! It’s great that my friend became aware of meaning by running into Karen – it gave her a graphic display of Providence in her life. How many Karens are there in her life that she’s unaware of? Your life is full of Karens that you are unaware of. There is good reason to look back on your past and reinterpret with faith, and look ahead with hope because your life bears the marks of Providence.
Christian Counseling to Make Peace with the Past
For whichever of the above reasons your past does not seem to be a story, one with meaning and intent, a Christian counselor can help you to sort it out, make connections, look back and reinterpret with faith, and be, instead of a victim of your past, a beneficiary of your past.