Friday, January 27, 2012

Relationships: How the Past Can Destroy the Future

We all have a tendency to look back and remember events and relationships as better than they were. Our brain doesn’t record events like a video camera. Neurologically, they’re actually memories of memories, coloured and tagged and shaped over time by emotion. Therefore, our perspective of what actually happened is not nearly as clear as we think. We may look back fondly upon our time in a certain city or church or relationship and believe that those times were better than the present. That those relationships were better. Most likely, however, we are forgetting the dark moments, the hurt that we went through, the reason we said goodbye in the first place. The past often seems better than the present only because it gets redrawn by our brain. If it was a photograph, the picture has been airbrushed completely by our brain.

In most civilizations throughout history, this neurological function forms as a kind of psychological defense. Instead of dealing with past miseries, we are enabled to move forward by remembering more kindly the times in our life that weren’t good to us. With the advent of technology and the proliferation of massive networks like Facebook, however, these old relationships remain a presence in our life.

In the history of humanity, we have never seen an age when the past mingles so freely with the present. And yes, it causes problems.

On my Facebook, I have a large list of friends from various moments and times in the past. Friends from grade school, my first church youth group, old college beer buddies, students I worked with, family, old clients, friends from different churches and political groups, and co-workers from one of the endless array of different jobs over the years. It’s a strange blend of the past and the present, and aside from answering the usual “what are they doing now” question, it always takes me on a bit of a journey into my past.

Sometimes, it’s helpful. When I see the old familiar names, I feel less scattered about my life which has seen a number of twists and turns along the way. It points out those markers by reminding me of where I’ve been, and reminds me why I’ve made certain decisions.

Unfortunately, this constant reminder of the past sometimes clouds our judgment. How many people do we know who have gone back to old relationships, even after countless breakups, because they remember the “good times”? And those relationships are not merely romantic ones, but our relationship with different ideas, different expressions of our humanity.

Fifteen years ago I was an ultra conservative evangelical Christian. A pastor and a firm believer in patriarchy and assigned gender roles. My view of the world was largely binary. (good, bad; black, white). These days, my journey has shown me other things, and my views have changed. Still a Christian, but with a different perspective. My view of life is more prismatic, more story oriented. I no longer believe in assigned gender roles, believe God to bigger than my belief structure, actively support gay rights, and consider myself a feminist. My memory of my time as a conservative, however, is largely pleasant. I had the pleasure of befriending and working with a number of sincere, loving people. And from what I can tell on my various networked sites, my friends who stayed the course on that path are just as sincere and kind as they were when I shared their beliefs. As a result of those pleasant memories, I’ve often thought about heading back down some of those roads, at least the ones that point to ministry and working in a church again.

But there’s a trap there, and it’s similar to the one of going back to an old boyfriend who was great in the beginning and then treated you like shit for the last six months of your relationship. A year passes and all you remember is how great he was in the beginning. You start dating again, and suddenly you’re caught in the same mess with the same drama, only this time it’s worse, because your self-esteem takes a hit when you realize that you’ve made the same mistake twice.

This past week I probed further than I had in a long time to head back down the road to ministry, and I was smacked by a jolt from the past, as if I’d taken a time machine back to 1995. In a matter of hours, I realized my mistake. For all the fondness of my memories, it was brought home, very quickly, why I’d changed course in my beliefs.

Working in a church and helping young people remains a possibility, but this past week has served as an eloquent reminder of why I’ve made certain decisions along the course of my life, choices I do not regret. Choices that have led me to where I am now. That isn’t to say I haven’t made mistakes, I’ve made many bad decisions and will make more in the years to come, but the reminder that I need to keep my focus on the future was a needed one.

People change and grow as we age, and so this attempt to replicate the history will always fail. The challenge in these times, when the past is mingled so closely with the present, is to accept where we’ve been, enjoy the fond memories, and move on. To look to the future with hope, and continue our search for greater wisdom.

There is so much out there, so many people and places and twists along the path, all waiting to help you move closer to your dreams. The past can serve as both a warning and a pleasant aside, but it is ill-suited as a map for the future. Don’t waste your time waiting for the past to come again. Set your course for new fields, new ideas, and take the road less travelled. Believe me, you won’t regret it.