Stepping Forward On An Old Path

If you have ever had an opportunity to re-visit a place of your childhood after many years of absence you may be familiar with a strange sensation: a feeling of being thrilled about re-discovering those little things and moments that had been forgotten; being nostalgic about those things that were remembered but are irrevocably gone; and being disappointed by those things that are still there but are very different from what you remember. Having these sensations all at once can be confusing. And confusion, a wise teacher once told me, is a wonderful thing: it is the first sign of movement, the first moment of getting unstuck.

Revisiting the old emotional places of our lives can have a similar impact on us. As we are moving through our own inner growth we may suddenly come upon a belief or a memory we had forgotten about: the realization that there was a time in life when we loved what we now feel we can’t do; the memory of an experience of total connection to all around us; the belief, the knowing, that the world is a safe place. And as we come upon those old places in our mind and soul, we may find them more dusty, smaller, and less colourful than we chose to believe; shining more brightly than our fears would let them be; or feeling familiar and yet different to the understanding of our adult Self.

The same is true for those not-so-pleasant memories of heartbreaks, fear, abuse, and worry. They, too, may come upon us unexpectedly or by design; and they, too, may feel different from our experience of the adult Self: darker, more worrisome, and sometimes more confusing because now we may understand rationally why things happened the way they did.

Finding those old and hidden memories usually means pulling apart the image we have created of our lives. Suddenly there are pieces that don’t fit into this picture and require us to take it all apart and assemble it differently. Or we find pieces that create a different kind of image when we use them to fill in the empty corners of our life-puzzle. Whatever our experience with these moments of re-cognition, with re-membering the past, usually it results in movement forward on our path. Either we get confused – and hence unstuck – or we finally understand as the “penny drops” and are ready to move on.

Like it or not, our past is a part of us. Like a tree that can’t survive if you cut its oldest, primary roots we wouldn’t be who we are if it wasn’t for our past. The Self that I know myself to be would die if I actually could cut out my past experiences. So if our past is there for better or for worse, what to do with it if it hurts us? Because the real importance lies not in what puzzle pieces we have but in what we do with the new impulse coming out of the image that all the available pieces create.

In their book In Search of Balance: Discovering Harmony in a Changing World John Robbins and Ann Mortifee write: “Adversity is not sent to harm us, but to help us develop our strength and resourcefulness. When we find ourselves entering an abyss, and having to face our own insecurities and fears, willingly or unwillingly, we are being offered an opportunity to awaken powers that have been waiting for these particular conditions to arise so that our hidden capacities can be brought to healing. Life is not given to us because it will be easy. It is given to us because we are capable of it. Each sorrow that we have had to encounter testifies to the tremendous courage it takes to live life fully. Our wounds speak not of our weakness, but of our bravery.”

Looking at the past in this way, our struggles may be easier to face: yes, it hurt. And we survived. We did more than survive, we grew. We moved on to become grown people with our own lives and responsibilities, and even if we don’t do it all perfectly, we are doing the best we can – and we are doing that based on the past that we are trying so hard to forget. If all that pain that is so close to the surface that we need to fight it resulted in what we are now, how much “better” may we be if we look at the painful stuff, throw out and let go what we don’t want anymore, and discover some of the gold hidden underneath it that used to give us strength and joy? How much better could we be in our lives if we allowed the joy, faith, courage, and creativity that are likely buried underneath it all to once again be part of our lives?

In my line of work I have the privilege to witness many such moments of rediscovery in my clients: be it the sudden realization that there used to be a place or a person that truly brought relieve from the severe pain someone suffered as a child; the memory of a creative activity that another person used to love – and actually be good at – until life circumstances or other people convinced her that she had to let it go; or the simple realization that for all his life he had a tendency to “hang on for dear life”. Whatever the realization or memory, it usually results in in a sense of starting afresh on a path well known.

And it works the same way for me: feeling stuck in a place of “all work and no play” it was the memory of a similar time in my life that allowed me to get refocused and moving again. Remembering not only the emptiness of this past time but also what moved me out of this emptiness and the feelings of connection and joy that eventually resulted, I found the impulse to move me forward. I got unstuck. I started to focus my inward energy and attention on my spirituality again. And just like back then, it takes time, is confusing at times, and greatly rewarding at others.

What I love most about these moments of re-membering and re-cognition is that they don’t require us to step off our path. They are more like confirmations: the path becomes clearer and wider. The brush on both sides gets cleared a little and some stones are removed to make the walking easier. The path may still be steep, but it usually becomes a bit easier to walk.

The possibility of coming up with little nuggets of gold when digging through the past is one of the reasons why I like to revisit turning points in my life and important dreams every once in a while. Sometimes a memory hurts too much to be touched at one time but can be looked at with less pain at another. If I left those memories untouched forever I may miss the gift hidden underneath. And that gift may be the one thing I really need to move on to a new beginning on my well known, wonderfully winding, and at times rather rugged path through life. This does not mean that I have to drag along the past every step of the way. Indeed, it means that I only need to take along those pieces that still feel like they may hold some treasure. The truly old and really just painful memories can be left behind; those that have been looked at and mined for their golden wisdom, too. But I can only decide which ones are worth taking along if I allow myself to look at them all at some point.

Life, I believe, is a gift. Sometimes gifts are difficult to handle, especially if they are not what we expected or if they are given in celebration of something that we didn’t want to acknowledge in the first place. But there they are – wanting us to do something with them. So, the next time life throws you a curve ball and brings up one of those seemingly useless and extremely confusing memories, try taking a step back from the pain. Draw the picture or write the story of it in third person. Ask yourself honestly what the gift may be that is buried underneath the obvious. If necessary, seek out help. Digging for gold is hard work and may require additional manpower. And always remember that this stop will likely not take you off your life path at all; it will probably just make the walking easier and the next goal clearer as the picture of your life becomes more complete and more true with every piece of the puzzle.

Essay Archives: Essays from 2005 to now