Building on the Past

Almost no one I talk to had a happy childhood. We mourn our past as the present trickles by. We want to live it over, do it better, get the mom or dad we really needed.

We can't re-write the past.

What we are doing, of course, is using our adult selves to direct what we should have had as kids. What would happen if you asked yourself, “What would I be today if I had the childhood I so badly needed?” Maybe you did have the childhood you needed then to become the person you are today.  You are you because of your past. You learned lessons you could not have learned had you had that ideal childhood. What did you learn? Maybe it was patience, self-discipline, discernment, independence, self-reliance, or determination. Maybe you learned how to survive. Not a bad skill.

When we treat our past like a swamp, we stoke it until it takes over our present, eating at us, whining at us to blame everyone who didn’t reach out. No doubt they should have, but they didn’t. And tomorrow, they still didn’t. And meanwhile, you are missing out on today’s life.

As we go through the days, mourning our past, we rip each day off the calendar and trample it beneath our feet. The calendar hanging on the wall gets thinner and thinner, as our days get fewer. We still grind each day beneath our feet, treading it into the past that does not change.

What if we handled that calendar page differently? What if we wrote on it–across the big numbers, around the margins, filling it with what we accomplished, how we moved forward, how we celebrate our skills? Then take the calendar page and tuck it back into the end of the calendar.

As the days run on, instead of the proof of loss under your feet, you have a record of what you have created, what you have made. The calender is a bit wobbly with all those loose pages, but it stays full and stuffed with facts, growth, with reminders of how far we have come.

We cannot change the past, but we can change how we see it. We can use it as rich ground to grow our future. Our lives can be the journals that track our steady movement ahead. To become the people we always wanted to be.

Quinn McDonald is a journaler of  life. She did not have a happy childhood, but she is having a hell of a time now. She’s the author of Raw Art Journaling, Making Meaning, Making Art.

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17 responses to “Building on the Past

  1. I do believe that a “dysfunctional” childhood brings with it both the shadow and the gift. I completely agree that we should not get lost in it; for many of us, the bigger challenge is acknowledging that the shadow side exists.

    I remember, when I first started a therapy journey some years ago, almost my first words were “nothing really bad ever happened to me”. Then spending nearly three years in deep therapy, actually just beginning to let it the impact of various parts of my story on the me walking around today.

    I love your message of changing the use of the calender days, – perhaps bringing our cracks and our beauty with us into those days. I don’t know who said it, but the line “the beauty is in the carvings” comes to mind. Also Leonard Cohen’s “every one has a crack – that’s how the light gets in”

    • We do like to suppress our shadow side. But without a shadow, we would never know the sun is shining and we are standing in full light. Therapy is very useful for changing the past–or at least the way we see it.

  2. I’ve been thinking about just what it is I suppose the “past” to be. I certainly make some assumptions about it; probably pretty much the same as the ones everybody else makes. It’s some sort of biochemical record of my sensory input, I guess. Completely inside my brain.

    Along with sensory input there are also the stories I invent about that input. For instance, I constantly tell stories about this “caused” that — these are useful stories, I think, because they’re a kind of shorthand. If I see a red ball roll along until it hits a blue ball, then the blue ball starts rolling, I say “the red ball caused the blue ball to move”. But what I see hasn’t anything to do with “causation”, I just see motion and tell a story about it. Even if the motion I see is pixels on a screen and there aren’t any objects at all, I tell the same story.

    Nobody knows quite what time is, nor why we “remember” the past but not the future. Most things in the universe are not directionally constrained — that is, anything can move one way just as well as another way. Time doesn’t seem to be like that, which makes me wonder if it, too, is a kind of story we make up.

    I’ve had an extraordinarily fortunate life; nobody has ever shot at me, I’ve always had enough to eat, shelter, I don’t do any particularly physical work unless I choose to, and so on. I’ve had great opportunities. When I mention this to people it’s not uncommon to hear the reply “you make your own luck”. I think they’re trying to pay a compliment, and maybe they’re also trying to reinforce their own feelings of control — the notion that people can shape their futures. I don’t completely agree with what they say, but they’re trying to be nice I think. I don’t argue about everything, no matter what some people say!

    I think I can exert some control over my future. And time is weird stuff; I think I can exert control over my past, too. I think the past can be rewritten, and it is all the time.

    There’s a myth about the world resting on the back of elephants, and the elephants are standing on a turtle. The joke goes: what’s the turtle standing on? It’s turtles all the way down. I think that’s the way it really might be; not turtles but stories all the way down.

    • There is a lot to your answer, Pete, as usual. The concept of time fascinates me, particularly about why we can remember the past and not the future. The Maori have incredible concepts about time, and I like them very much. They also handle “reality” a bit differently than we do. And of course, we all have our own memory. When I tell a story about what happened in my childhood, my brother remembers it completely differently. So it has to do with context and experience and age as well. We can exert control over our past in how we choose to let it affect us. And then there is the whole philosophy aspect of your post–another whole story.

  3. Very well written, Quinn. Like Traci, I had a very good childhood. My brother and I have talked in the past about how blessed we were and still are to have had “Ozzie and Harriet” raising us. Mom and Dad were not perfect and made their share of mistakes but they loved us and never intentionally hurt us. They showed us what it means to be truly in love with your spouse. The taught us about kindness, generosity, humbleness, responsibility, forgiveness and so on through their actions with each other, with us, and with others.
    My brother works in the public schools here in Arizona. He has seen some pretty dire situations. But, he also talks about the great sacrifices he sees some of the parents of his handicapped students make for their kids.
    Yet, no life is unscathed.
    Therefore your calendar thoughts are wonderful, Quinn. The idea is exciting and uplifting and oh so fun. Love it!

  4. This post really rang true for me. I am constantly telling my adult siblings that they need to learn to see our parents for the people they ARE not the people they want them to be. Wishing that things had been different is a fruitless waste of time and energy. The past is beyond our control, as are other people, and the sane thing to do is to accept things the way they are and get on with living the life you have. It is up to you what you make of it…

  5. Yes, when we drive a car we look to the front and just glance at the rear view mirror for reference. Driving aimlessly won’t get you where you want to be although it might have it’s occasional pleasures. Keep you hands on the wheel and steer if you have a destination in mind!

  6. Ohhh, I love this post Quinn! I DID have a happy childhood; I have great memories of all the fun, laughter and love I had in my life growing up. Let me emphasize, I had a happy childhood, not a perfect childhood. My parents divorced when I was 8, my father was distant but luckily, I had a step-dad that made up for the losses from my real father. My sister was horribly mean to me. Blah, blah, blah. What we all need to realize is that nobody had a perfect, “Leave It to Beaver” childhood. It’s how we choose to look at things as an adult that will decide whether or not we are victims. I realize that a lot of people had really terrible things happen to them as children but no amount of self-pity or complaining will change the circumstances of their earlier lives. Like you said, we cannot change the past but we can change how we see it and use it to grow our future.

    I love your calendar example! What a perfect way to change our outlook to focus on what we have and what we’ve accomplished rather than all that we’ve lost.

    I will end this long response with three quotes:

    Let your past make you better, not bitter. ~ TPJ

    How would your life be different if…You stopped validating your victim mentality? Let today be the day…You shake off your self-defeating drama and embrace your innate ability to recover and achieve. ~ Steve Maraboli

    It’s never too late to have a happy childhood. But the second one is up to you and no one else. ~ Regina Brett

    • Great quotes, Traci. And I often think of my own role as a mother–I did my damnest to be a good,loving, responsible mother–and I’m sure my adult son would laugh and tell me all the things I didn’t give him that he needed. It’s exactly as you said–no one has a perfect past. How we deal with it is up to us now. We are the people responsible for giving ourselves what we needed.

  7. This is such an important post! I couldn’t agree more. As long as one is a kid it’s perhaps difficult to changs things, but as adults we have to make a stand. Yesterday was, today is and tomorrow………well it’s not here yet. Very very good post!!

  8. This post is spot-on. Given the abundant dysfunction I was raised with, I sometimes wonder if I’d be “even better” if I hadn’t faced such things. And then I remember that plenty of people who seem to have had a great upbringing and plenty of opportunity are now kinda rotten people. Entitled, unkind, flakey – you name it.

    So, while my childhood wasn’t anything I’d put anyone else through, it has made me into the person I am today. I have plenty of room for improvement, but I’m kind, responsible, appreciative, fun, and expressive. And I’m having a hell of a time now, too! Cheers!

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