We Are So Much More
Here I am dating myself once again. I remember seeing “Good Will Hunting” in the theaters when I was in graduate school. I was happy to see any and every movie that involved therapy, or a client-therapist relationship. I knew my social work degree would be valuable but not nearly as informative as great actors pretending to be the best in the business at helping people get better. I thoroughly enjoyed this particular film, and it is the first thing I think about when I attempt to reflect a bit more about how our past should not define us.
Reaching back into the deep recesses of my memory, I can summarize what matters here: Will is a young man of humble means. He is a janitor who strives for nothing more than to hang with friends and grab a beer at the townie bar each night. It turns out that this unassuming guy is quite the mathematical genius, despite no formal education. And due to a serious attitude problem and tendency to lose his temper, is required to see Robin Williams for therapy. Will is reluctant but eventually we learn of the horrible abuse he suffered at the hands of an alcoholic foster parent, and how much his life has been about keeping expectations, of himself and others, pretty low. And this is a truly terrible way to live. Will has allowed his past to define him.
Life may not be fair but everyone, no matter who they are, where they came from or what they happen to look like, has a past. The past, by definition, is the time period before this moment. It is time that no longer exists. Me watching that movie. Graduate school. That humiliating night out on the town when I drank too much. That perfect double date. Even breakfast. It has passed and it is all in the past. The good, the bad and the ugly.
Our natural inclination is to take the dark parts of our past and try to bury them, pretending they never happened. That works just fine when what happened isn’t memorable, or terrible. But it seems impossible when that past is horrific, with long-lasting effects on our sense of self. Our past literally infects our feelings moving forward. And sometimes, no matter how far we get from that past, how many days or years pass, we still can’t let it go. And in not letting it go, we allow it to be part of our present, and sadly, our future.
Being defined by our past is more than just holding on to a memory. It is the deeply held belief that somehow, because of what has happened to us, we are resigned to a certain fate. Our lives are a certain way because of what life dealt us. We can’t do certain things or have certain things because of what life dealt us. We will always be sad, angry, poor, unhappy, ugly, fill in the blank - because of what happened before. We will never be anything or have anything we want. Being defined by our past damages our feelings in the present, and absolutely kills our feelings about the future. After all, if these things have always been a part of my life, the future will only be more of the same, so we think. Worse yet, we begin to believe and find proof to confirm that what happened in the past belongs to us, and is rightfully the reason for all of our struggles. We take deep ownership of it, even when it hurts.
We know people like this. They blame. They deflect accountability. They tend to see the glass as always empty, not even half full. They might have good lives and good people around them now but when something goes awry, all of a sudden it becomes about how life always goes that way for them, and how they have limited hope for anything changing in the future. They can quickly detail their past - abuse, mistreatment, divorce, job loss, etc. And draw a line between that past event to terrible things going on in the present. They are defined by what has happened to them. And it is not a pretty sight.
But a simple truth remains: We are not what has happened to us. No traumatic experience, natural disaster, event outside our control or terrible treatment by others. It is not our fault, and most importantly, it is not who we are. We are not to be held responsible for what happened before, or what was done to us or around us. And that should offer us a renewed sense of freedom. If we can completely embrace the idea that what happened before is distinctly separate from us, then we don’t have to be responsible for dragging it around in the present, and we’ll prevent it from dragging us down in the future.
It takes a measure of forgiveness. Since there is nothing we can do to change what happened before, we can choose to be at peace with it. We can decide to see it and feel it, but keep it in its rightful place in our lives, which is in the past. Forgive ourselves for assuming the responsibility for what is not our fault, and forgive ourselves for using it as an excuse for inaction. Maybe even forgive the unpredictability of life that exists for all of us.
The character Will in the movie learned to see the possibility of something better once he released himself from the burden of his past. The past wasn’t something to be feared or forgotten, but captured as part of what makes him who he is now, which is someone able to rise above, survive, choose, and do more. We don’t forget it - we learn from it. We don’t hide from it - we see it clearly. We accept it as the past, not our present or future.
We are never what has happened to us. We are absolutely what we decide to be today and every day forward. Nothing from the past has to prevent us from becoming and being exactly who we want to be. It doesn’t have to define us; rather, we can define ourselves by what we choose to do right here and right now.