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The past plays a role in our lives, but shouldn’t be overwhelming

How does one let go of the past when it is such a large part of making us whoever it is we are today? What matters is, with hard work, I have not let my past define me, and I feel quite well-adjusted. What advice could you give to a friend of mine who is in a seemingly never-ending trap of not being able to let go of the past? — C.K., Las Vegas

I think you’ve answered a huge part of your own question in your first sentence. The past is a large part of what makes us who we are. And so, while I understand what the rhetoric "let go of the past" means to be saying, it cannot be taken literally, because we can’t, strictly speaking, let go of the past.

What we can do, and must do, is understand that we are free to decide how we are related to our past. And, if free, then we must shape the relationship with great care.

You make me think, first, of unhelpful, problematic, or in extreme cases, even pathological ways we can be related to our past.

For example, we should beware of overly nostalgic relationships with the past. Now nostalgia, in measured doses of decadence, can be an enjoyable part of life. It is part of how we treasure memories. But unbridled, fierce nostalgia can create a kind of stuckness. It can turn pleasant, happy memories into the prison of legend and myth.

I am, for example, nostalgic about The Beatles. Not just their music, but also nostalgic about the mostly illusionary "innocence of youth" that The Beatles represent. Fine enough so far. But, if I’m not careful, that nostalgia could suffocate my willingness to pay attention to new, emerging music, not to mention making me less than accurate in my "apple pie" descriptions of my youth.

Yes, "the good old days" have many treasures to appreciate. But today also is one of the "good old days," and it has treasures, too.

We should beware becoming overly attached to past vocations, perhaps especially if we were revered in those vocations. For example, I think of star professional athletes who, once retired, seem to founder in finding and sustaining new identities after the crowds stopped chanting their names. Or, again, consider artists whose time of fame and glory is past. I saw The Gatlin Brothers during their "Adios" tour, just before they retired. Their last album included a song called "One Dream Per Customer." In it, you could hear Larry Gatlin encouraging himself to be willing to dream new dreams after his exit as a performer.

Bitterness, resentment, cynicism, victimhood — these are the unhappy ways we relate ourselves to past injustices, accidents, losses, betrayals and pain. Such things are understandable, perhaps even necessary for a time. But, at some point, our attachments to tragedy become ego-indulgent. Our identity becomes one-dimensionally defined as "victim." And "victim" is a dodge from the work of living well. Not to mention that it drains the life out of everyone around us. The best thing we can do with enemies and antagonists is to reconcile with them. But, when that is impossible, the next best thing we can do is to render these people irrelevant and embrace life anew.

Chief on my list of unhappy attachments to the past are guilt and shame. Yes, these are ways to be related to the past. But they are awful ways. Again, for a time, such feelings are understandable, necessary and even useful. It’s good for us to grieve our wrongdoings, to let our hearts be broken in empathy for the pain we have caused. But, we do no one and nothing any favors by living indefinitely or permanently in the grip of guilt and shame.

Like everyone else, the closet of my past contains many embarrassments rightly my own. And, while I will always remain objectively guilty of the deeds, this does not mean I’m required to marinate for eternity in the indulgence of feeling guilty. I redeem my misdeeds best by living well, by contributing more good than bad to the world.

We don’t let go of the past. What we do is deconstruct cheaply constructed ego-relationships with the past that rob us of creativity, vitality and contentment. Then we reconstruct a new relationship with the past, a relationship that gives us more choices for peace.

We don’t let go of the past. We accept it. We make peace with it. Then we integrate it into the tapestry of a whole, meaningful life.

Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of "Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing" (Stephens Press). His columns also appear on Sundays in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Contact him at 227-4165 or skalas@reviewjournal.com.

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