Don’t let the past define you.
If I had a dime for every time someone has said those words to me, I’d be able to fully fund time travel research, enabling me to go back and give a wet willy anyone who has said it.
Yeah, that’s what I’d do. Because what else would I change? I’ve seen Back to the Future, and I know better than to meddle with the past.
Furthermore, I challenge you to name one person who hasn’t been shaped or altered by what they’ve lived.
Today is September 18th, 2019. Right now my feet are propped up on the dining room table. A chorus of buzzing insects provide a peaceful backdrop of white noise through the open windows of the modest Duneland home that my family and I occupy. I want for nothing; there are four kinds of cheese in the fridge and I’m a little pudgy. I have a husband who makes me laugh and a son who gives me a reason to get up and wash my face in the morning. As if that weren’t enough, we have three cats, a dog, a third of an acre, running water, light, friends.
I’d be lying if I said I was happy all the time. Some days I’m so fraught with anxiety that I peel the skin off my face for comfort. Other days I’m so weighed down by sorrow that all I can manage is to cart my son to and from school, and if I’m lucky, I might wash a fork or two. But one thing I owe entirely to my past is my contentedness.
I want for nothing.
I not only accept my circumstances, but I appreciate them.
I’ve got it good.
I wouldn’t be this way without the vastly different circumstances of my past. My mom once ran over someone with her car while I was in the back seat. That was a bad day, but one among too many to count.
How can I possibly be discontented in a present moment that contains no such thing? The present is peace, and I know that precisely because of the past.
The past does define me.
The other side of the coin is far less heartwarming.
The perpetual reminders of what was lost. The innocent strangers who unwittingly touch that sore wound. Sometimes, I wince.
Do your parents live around here?
Long ago, I used to worry about the feelings of the asker. I learned to package the truth in a shiny box with a bow. Then there were the times when I angrily spit the truth out like something with a bad taste. You asked for it, I’d think to myself. Most of the time these days, I tread carefully into the truth, in such a way that the asker is off the hook as it comes to my feelings, Oh, I don’t have parents, but it’s cool. I’m fine. Everything’s fine.
Depending on the person, though, they may see my honesty as an invitation to a depth of connection many of us yearn for.
My parents lost custody of me as a kid. My mom passed away; my dad is not in my life.
So many times my honesty has opened up a rich connection with another human, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
Why does it matter anymore? I’m thirty-eight, for God’s sake. I’m a mom myself. Most of what I’m talking about happened when Ronald Reagan was president. IRRELEVANT!
But let me tell you why it matters.
Just last year I was at the 50th anniversary brunch for my Aunt Rose and Uncle Jim, and I casually asked an older woman next to me how many children she had. The light in her eyes changed for a fraction of a second, indicating an all-too-familiar internal crisis: Do I tell the truth?
She could have said, “I have four children,” and left it at that.
But she didn’t. She said, “I have four children, but one died in childhood.”
Oh, what profound vulnerability, right there as we leaned over our dessert. She had essentially just handed me a treasure, and I knew to treat it with great honor.
“What is his name?” I asked.
Her eyes lit up. “Samuel,” she said.
No matter how much time passed, it mattered that she had the opportunity to talk about him. It allowed her to remember him; to give him a place in her present moment. Because the truth is: He will always be there with her, everywhere she goes.
He is not her past. He is her present.
I am not comparing the loss of a child to the loss of one’s parents in childhood. They’re apples and oranges, and I’m not stupid. But two things in our experience are exactly the same:
- I’ve lived through something traumatic that, although not uncommon, is not typical.
- I’ll never have the luxury of escaping the truth of my trauma as long as I intend to leave my house and talk to people.
Having to face my grief and trauma in casual conversation has given me the gift of grace and a depth of understanding that does define me. Full stop.
And I am not ashamed.