How many times did you go over in your mind that evening last week when you were out with the office team and you were telling them about the time you pulled a fast one on the lot from downstairs… only they didn’t think it was funny at all?
How often do you think about your mistakes?
Or the time when you’d organized a romantic evening with your partner to celebrate your first anniversary and you got distracted by your boss to talk about the new marketing initiative and you just didn’t dare refuse… so you missed the train and left her standing in the rain?
Or back when you were ten and invited to that birthday party and you turned up in completely the wrong gear – all smart, but somehow you’d missed hearing the bit about going for a party in the adventure playground?
To what end do we turn things over in our mind, again and again and again?
To what purpose those ceaseless and agonizing ‘what ifs?’
There is a good answer to that, and there is a not so good answer, and there is a completely irrational answer.
… good, well, sort of
The good(-ish) answer would be that we want to learn how we might approach a similar situation in the future and get a more successful outcome. There is some logic in this, so long as we remember that we can never step in the same river twice. Whatever similarities we may think we see in situations in the future, there will also always be differences. In fact it’s fairly safe to say that there will be more differences than similarities, but it will look the other way round. (The reason for this is that when we’re put on the spot we always cast around for what we can recognize because it’s human nature to go for security first.) So similarities there may be, but beware that the comfort factor isn’t illusory: pull back the veil of likeness and you will usually find a host of mismatches.
… not so good, really
The not so good answer is that we have to keep on telling ourselves what a mess we made, either because we deserve to be punished for being so stupid or careless or thoughtless or whatever, or because we need to make sure we don’t do it again.
My first response to this is that self-flagellation belongs to hair-shirt mediaeval monks and doesn’t really have a place in the modern world. Apart from that, there is almost certainly a host of people around willing and eager to have a go at you, so why sleep with the enemy? Give yourself a break.
My second response is equally unsparing. If you’re going to spend all this time reminding yourself about the many ways you could mess up – have messed up – so that you don’t make the same mess the next time around, you probably won’t even see the next time coming.
… are you a reasonable person?
The completely irrational answer is the delusion that we can make things better or put things right by dwelling on them. You will deny it to yourself, I’m sure, because we all do, but somewhere deep down lurks the hope that if you go over past failings and embarrassments often enough you will be able to re-write the plot and come out ok.
Change history in other words.
Who do you think you are?
There is an approach to therapy which requires the client to find the three most important questions which apply to them. In the process of finding the questions, the ground miraculously shifts and they find that the questions no longer appear as questions, but have become answers.
Same here. The answer lies in a question. Who do you think you are?
Right now there is only one person that we can be, each of us. That sounds obvious, but it is as subtle as it is obvious.
It is obvious insofar as there is no-one else we can be other than the person we are. True, we can take ourselves into a fantasy world, create an avatar and inhabit a virtual existence on a computer platform and interact with other virtual people. Or we can watch a film and project ourselves into the life of one of the characters, and then perhaps we might also be inhabiting the life we imagine for the star who is playing the part. But in the real world, no. We are who we are.
So who do we think we are?
We are the person who stands at the end of our story so far. We are the sum of our genetics and our experiences through life to this point. Some things have made us happy and some things have made us sad, but all things have had their place and played their part. We have lived and we have learnt. We can pull ourselves down or we can build ourselves up. We can dislike ourselves or we can respect ourselves. And it is our attitude to the person we have come to be which will largely determine whether in the next minute or day or week or year we feel hope, or despondency.
If we pull ourselves down, we are always looking backwards, always going over our faults and failures in our head.
If we build ourselves up we are projecting forward with the things we know we can do.
If we dislike ourselves, we are full of self-recrimination, always looking over our shoulder to a version of ourselves which embarrasses us or shames us.
If we respect ourselves, we are looking at the person who is going to go on from here, maybe not the ideal person we would like to be, but the person who has survived to this point… and sometimes just to have survived is miracle enough.
Memories are made of… what?
So what about memories? We can’t erase them, that’s true. But they aren’t history – that’s also true. The further back they are, the more selective and the less accurate they are. And all that churning and ruminating and chewing the cud you’re doing is not going to improve the accuracy. You can’t enhance the resolution of an image by messing with the pixels, and if you’re going to start putting in extra pixels, well that’s simply guesswork.
We must allow our memories to be just part of the fabric – good or bad they need to be no more than glimpses of that firmament of experience which has created us the person we are. There’s no-one else that can be us. And there’s no other us that we can be. So to want to be anyone else – from the mindfulness paradigm – is irrational.
Life is a journey, a path to be trod. If we look back, we will surely trip. If we sit brooding, we are getting in our own way. But if we let our memories be no more than the mould from which this present cast was sculpted, then step by step, we can create tomorrow’s us.