“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards”
Watching older people during the last phase of this life is enlightening. Often, not always, they lose more of their short term memories and retain many of their long term memories. You can sit with them and they will talk about an old family story, probably one you have heard many times. Yet they can’t remember what time you told them you would come by to pick them up. Does this sound familiar? Most likely we all live more in our past than in our present, but it isn't so noticeable in this way.
Living in our past is noticeable through our fears and our anxieties and our anger and our need for control and need for comfort, and such. It is noticeable through our issues or places where we are stuck in our lives. When we are afraid to move forward for any reason, that fear is a guideline to an old memory where something not so good happened. When we are in denial of seeing something in us or in a relationship, we are looking more into the past than we are at what is happening right in front of us. What would happen if we followed that guideline to the place in the past that holds precious information for our souls and our growth, instead of getting lost in our feelings and thoughts, which hold us back? Isn't that a good question, yet we all get caught in the webs of the past.
There are some older people I know who are not telling the same old stories over and over again. There are some older souls who have made peace with their pasts and are able to still live in the here and now. They remember what time you are coming to pick them up and are vitally present. That is their secret; they have made peace with their past and aren't afraid to follow the guidelines to the places of pain. They recognize that those very places are sacred…not to get stuck in, but they hold such vital information for their continued growth. They go back in order to live in the present; even with the fear they may carry.
My father is one of the elders who is lost in the past. Although he still remembers who we are, he has lost most words, he gets confused easily, he re-tells stories over and over again, and he remembers everything negative that has happened to him. I sometimes prod him to tell me something good. He laughs, and then continues to tell me his tales of woe. In the prime of his life he helped many people. When I have spoken with some of his patients and friends, they easily speak of how brilliant he was and how he helped them in so many crucial ways.
This man who was brilliant in some ways, and one patient called it a crazy brilliance, was able to help others in important ways, and was not able to help himself. He lives in the past. He lives in the past of his early traumas. He is still nursing hurts from his mother and father, and so wasn't able to emotionally treat the love of his life, my mother, the way he wanted to. He couldn't allow himself to really be close to others. He didn’t trust. As a young child, this was for good reason; but he stayed there. His dementia is a generational thing. It also makes me wonder how many others my family got caught in similar webs. And how many others have and are doing the same thing?
When we don’t move on in careers and in relationships, can we be brave enough to use the past to guide us and help us? But be able to let it go when it doesn't help us anymore? When we stay in abusive relationships, or we repeat patterns over and over again, can we begin to use these guidelines and recognize that they take us to traumatic, yes, but rich and fertile places? These are important questions for us to ask ourselves so we can live in the present, be role model elders, and live healthy, whole and vital lives to 92 and on.
I am interested in your experiences in this regard. What have you noticed with elders in your lives, and in your own experiences?
Small Changes that Promote Big Results:
This exercise will take about 10 to 15 minutes. Take a piece of paper, or for the digital agers, a notepad. Let’s look at one day in our lives. Start with yesterday. Go through your day in your mind’s eye, and start with waking up and what went through your mind, if you can remember. Go through your daily rituals, encounters with family, friends, co workers, bosses, patients, clients, etc. and ask yourself if you were in the present, or if your mind drifted anywhere? If you can pinpoint a drift, where did it drift, if you can remember? If not, just notice it drifted. Go through the whole day and as honestly as possible see where you might have gone into the past as an inappropriate time.
As with all these exercise, there is no shame or blame, just noticing.
Write down important things that came up for you during this exercise.
If yesterday was too long ago, go through your present day and do the same process!