I was speaking with a friend recently about age in general, how we ‘remember’ our lives and the power of memories to affect our day-to-day experience. From one perspective, I think that living in the present is the point of living—experientially at least. When we are present, our memories are just memories and don’t affect us either positively or negatively. Our memories are our ‘story’, and we can relate to our past as just that—a story. On the other hand, our moods and our memories are very connected. While the past is the past, it can have an impact on the present. Memory can enrich our lives and allow us to ‘relive’ happy moments or it can displace and diminish our lives, burying us in caskets of regret, resentment, fear and guilt.
Whether positive or negative, moods are phenomena that come with being human and living temporal lives. Moods connect our past, present and future. They are like a soundtrack on a film, giving the color and continuity to the storyline. Moods also affect how we relate to the future. When we are in “good” moods, the future can be open and bright. When we are in “bad” moods, the future can look threatening and dark. We don’t control our moods, but we can control how we relate to them. When we can just allow the experience without resisting it, it generally passes quickly, which allows us to be present. When we ‘try’ to ‘not feel a certain way’ or resist our mood, then it typically will persist and become part of the circular and automatic thinking that can lead to sleepless nights and all sorts of dysfunctional behavior. The Fourth Step in all 12 Step Programs is about distinguishing and completing all of the bad things we’ve done in our past and becoming free to make new choices in the future.
Guilt, for example, is an indictment, a judgment that we’ve done something wrong. However we experience it, guilt makes us feel ‘bad’ and can become an obsessive preoccupation if we don’t let it go. It is a kind of self-inflicted suffering or punishment, which is why we often do whatever we feel guilty about again—even while feeling guilty. Remorse is a common mood among alcoholics the morning after a binge. The guilt can be so pervasive and dark as to have many of us contemplate suicide more than once. But what is not as obvious is that guilt also serves to justify whatever it is we are guilty about. It is a conversation in which it is possible to justify ‘bad’ behavior because feeling guilty somehow balances our psychic scales and fuels our rationalizations and the intractability associated with our actions. As anyone who has lived with recurring and persistent guilt will attest—it becomes a prison and, at some point, we lose the ability to choose—we become addicts to our behavior and lose ourselves in a sea of guilt until we ‘hit bottom’ and begin a process of recovery.
Guilt is the last refuge of the mind’s inability to be responsible. Responsibility is an expression of Self. The egoistic mind is a mechanism.
So a big part of being mature, which most of us learn sooner or later, is to allow the past to be the past and forgive ourselves for whatever bad things we’ve done, or in some cases may continue to do. We can learn over time that freedom from our own deeply ingrained habits and ways of being is possible only through a relationship with something larger than ourselves—a ‘Higher Power’, a coach, the Universe. When we surrender to a ‘Higher Power’ and commit ourselves to some course of action, we open the possibility for choices we simply don’t have from the perspective of our past. Guilt, resentment, regret and fears disappear, since they have no currency in the present and cannot persist on their own. At the same time, we can choose to remember those experiences which validate our humanity and remind us of who we are and bring us together as human beings. We can embrace and accept our past fully, including the good and the bad, and allow it to be the past without it becoming so significant in the present that it displaces and determines our future.