No One Lives in the Past

Not even if they want to.

Posted Mar 31, 2017

No one lives in the past. The past is the past. It’s gone. You don’t ever have to put the past behind you. It’s always behind you.

It’s certainly the case that some people spend a lot of time reminiscing about, reflecting on, ruminating over, reviewing, or remembering past events. All of this mental regurgitation, however, is happening now. Life is only ever a “now” event. At the moment I’m typing and thinking about the way I want to express these ideas. I’m also thinking about the plane I have to catch in a couple of hours and I’m thinking about the deadline I’ve set myself for finishing this article. All of that is happening right now. And right now is all there ever is.

Some people’s “right nows” are filled with particular memories from the past. That in itself is a pretty remarkable thing. Ordinarily, it’s very difficult to keep something in your mind for very long. Even that annoying song that popped into your head and now won’t seem to leave, doesn’t replay itself that many times. If you try to keep one event in your mind for an extended period, it’s actually a really difficult thing to do.

It’s fascinating, don’t you think, that one event or series of events, from the massive event warehouse of a person’s past, can continue to appear in the now of everyday living. By the time someone reaches the age of 25, they have been breathing in and out for approximately 219,000 hours. Out of all of those hours, the noxious event is likely to represent a small fraction of this time. Perhaps one 25 year old was abused every school day for approximately half an hour over the five years they were at secondary school. That means this person experienced approximately 500 hours of abuse which is an extremely severe amount of abuse. This is 500 more hours of abuse than anyone should have to experience but still only a tiny fraction of the total 219,000 hours they have “nowed” through so far. And if the 25 year old keeps breathing in and out, that fraction will get smaller all the time.

Yet, despite the teensy proportion of the past that this awfulness represents, it persistently stays in the “now," while most of the other past events never re-appear or pop up only at random times. So, despite the small actual fraction of the total living of this 25 year old that the abuse is, the impact of the abuse makes this fraction swell enormously as the event from the distant past becomes a constant and tormenting companion through the journey of life’s “nows."

If you think about all the things that have happened in your life between the time you were born and right now, it’s clear that most things from the past are rarely, if ever remembered.

Mostly, we’re very good at “letting go” of the past.

Why is it that one event from long ago can demand so much screen time as you mess around in the "now" of your living?

As humans, we like to get things sorted. Those bits of the past that hang around in our “now” are the bits that aren’t sorted. And the bits that are the most unsorted are the most frequent visitors to the “now." We’re not living in the past, we’re sorting in the present. We’re reconciling right now the unsettledness of our mind. Why did we let that happen? Why didn’t we scream out, or run away, or stand up for ourselves? How could that person do that? Why haven’t they paid for what they did? What sort of a world is this that could let that happen to someone? How could I have been so stupid to trust that person and call them a friend?

It’s only when questions such as these can find satisfactory answers that life will become a series of different “nows." These new “nows” might involve a greater appreciation and awareness of the things that are currently happening all around you as well as the imagining of the bright and bold futures you are yet to create for yourself.