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Rated: 13+ · Essay · Educational · #1955858
First of a series of reflections on everyday realities after 28 years of counselling.

Ideas about the past and the future have a significant impact on much of our lives. Too much emphasis on these directions can create problems and there is much to be gained from a stronger focus on the present, on what is happening here and now.

Issues of depression and anxiety are, in one sense, closely linked to ideas about the past and future. In very simple terms, depression is about the past and anxiety is about the future. We become depressed over real or, more likely, imagined failures in the past. Depression often involves the impossible task of trying to change the past because it was painful, unpleasant or otherwise something we wish hadn’t happened. In part, this is about our sense of not being able to control something that has happened and we don’t like, and we feel bad because we can’t correct those past events. The challenge is to live with them and focus on the present.

One of the most basic “iron rules” of life is that we cannot change the past. No matter how bad or distressing it may have been, the past is set and we can’t change it. Two of the saddest expressions in our language are “if only” and “I wish”. What we can do is to acknowledge what has happened in the past and, if it is unhelpful, take action so that it is less likely to affect our future. On the other hand, we can change our perceptions, ideas and beliefs about the past so that our future can be less influenced by what we can’t change.

That is not to say that we shouldn’t look at correcting any damage or hurt that our past actions may have caused. If we have harmed others in some way, we have a responsibility to at least attempt to make amends in some suitable way. It may be as simple as genuinely apologising for past actions, or possibly some more tangible response. This will tend to depend on the nature of the harm done.

In this context, it is never useful to argue about the past; no amount of argument can ever change what has already happened. In our relationships, the tendency to drag up past indiscretions, almost using them as a weapon, can be referred to as “hitting below the belt”. This never results in agreement but frequently in hostility and pain. Why? Because, once again, we cannot change the past. Focussing on what cannot be changed is a waste of time and effort, and ultimately damaging to ourselves and those close to us.

Equally, we cannot know the future. No-one has a crystal ball that can reveal everything that will happen. The problem is, however, that we worry about what MIGHT happen in the future. We don’t, then, realise how that future is shaped is substantially in our own hands, even accepting that our environment and other people may influence our decisions. This chronic worrying may then deepen into anxiety, then anxiety about feeling anxious and possibly into even worse conditions such as panic attacks or agoraphobia.

Anxiety is related to fear, and we tend to fear what we don’t know. So we need to accept the uncertainty of what we cannot know, and it is useful, maybe essential to plan for a desired future. But, and it’s a huge but, we must build flexibility and adaptability into that plan to cope with the inevitability of change. In this way, we can avoid some of the worst aspects of anxiety. Many people find it easier to be a result of their past rather than be the cause of their future.

Given that we cannot change the past and cannot know the future, all we have is this moment, right here and right now. And now. And now. Our lives are constructed of a seamless series of “heres and nows” stretching from the cradle to the grave. Any action we take (and, for that matter, and action we don’t take) is taken NOW—not in the past, not in the future, but NOW. We need to remain aware of the simple fact that whatever we do, we are doing NOW.

We need to find the courage to change those things we can change, the serenity to accept those things we cannot change and the wisdom to know the difference. If we spend too much time trying to change those things we know that we can’t change, just because we don’t like the situation, we will do ourselves harm. A cynical definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result. Or, alternatively, “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got”.

Change is never easy, and we need to be aware of the difference between “simple” and “easy”. Much of what I have said here is simple, but putting it into practice can be monumentally difficult and challenging because we might start to believe in “rather the devil you know than the devil you don’t know”. Nevertheless, change is inevitable; we are not the same person we were even five minutes ago. At that level, the changes may be microscopic. But look at a photo of yourself taken say five years ago, and you will see change. Change cannot be avoided and it is better to accept this fact and work with it, rather than to struggle against the reality of change and become a victim of not moving forward. The harder we struggle, the more difficult the challenge becomes.

A useful way of looking at this is to maintain an open awareness of what is happening NOW. Becoming aware is the key to mindfulness (a subject for a future essay) so that we can focus our full attention on our immediate environment. In this way, we develop a better understanding of the changes that are taking place around us. Another way of putting this is that we pay attention to what is happening to and around us, rather than drifting along on “auto-pilot”, simply letting the outside world dictate our actions and responses.

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