The Power of the Past to Haunt Us


On a walk in a Portland neighborhood with my sister and brother recently, a rather scary scene greeted us. It was a skeleton reaching out from the earth skywards, a grimace on its skull. Then I remembered it was the day before Halloween. (and yes, I am the kind of person who takes photos of these things, much to the chagrin of my wife.)

But somehow the force of the image made me think of how the past at times seems to reach out and want to pull us back, often through regret and second-guessing. As someone once said, our lives can be filled with the ‘should haves, could haves and would haves’. Instead of facing each day full of new mercies, we live in a place of being haunted by regrets and if onlys. What if I had done it differently? If only I had not said those things, or allowed those habits to grow in my life.

Regrets are like skeletons reaching out from the grave. They seek to pull us into places of darkness, of pain and longing for what could have been. The past has a particular power, and can even haunt if allowed to. As American novelist William Faulkner wrote in Requiem for a Nun, ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past.’ We are all living our history in a continued way, and letting go of regrets and disappointments is crucial to living a life of peace and embrace of our own story, whether as a person, family or nation.

This week here in the United States is the celebration of Thanksgiving, a holiday that enables the nation and its people to remember shared blessings, however imperfectly the national story has been lived out towards the indigenous of the land who gave those blessings. Being grateful for what we have leads to a contentment that causes the if onlys to quietly die. What does a life without regrets look like? What power does a life like that hold?

Living without regrets towards your own history does not magically appear in our older age. It takes an earlier establishment of a habit pattern that results in a peace and contentment as we age. Coming to terms with our own history, the good and bad and ugly, is never easy. It takes work. It takes lots of learning to embrace our own failings and weaknesses, and those around us.

But it is never too late, or too early, to start practicing a life of no regrets. A life of gratefulness and contentment. Allowing our history to be embraced and not denied or treated like an enemy to be destroyed. It is important to understand that denial is not the same as no regrets. We must face our pasts, our ugliness as well as our beauty. Denial is a coping strategy to not face regrets. Denial is not gratefulness. Gratefulness comes out of hard earned embrace of the difficult places and pain.

What regrets reach out to you from the past? What places of pain have you not embraced, instead trying to cope through positivity and denial? Contentment with our lives does not come easy, but is hard earned through a lifetime of habits of trust and gratefulness.

Let’s start, or re-start, today.

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