Understanding the past can bring peace to the present

by Leah McClellan

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I’m not much for going down memory lane. Scrapbooks, old photos, little trinkets, souvenirs—photos are fun once in awhile, but that’s about it. Rehashing old stuff, telling old stories, and remember the time when…meh. I do it once in awhile, but it doesn’t hold my interest for long.

I like to talk about what’s new and exciting and happening now or what I’d like to do, not go over the same old stuff.

The same applies to my thoughts:

I like to be in the here and now, mindful of what’s going on and what I’m thinking and feeling right now in the current moment.

But sometimes it’s helpful to talk about past events or think them over deeply. If something really rough, downright traumatic, or just painful happened in your life, it can be helpful to talk about it with a close, compassionate friend or a therapist. Sometimes talking about things that trouble us can help us make sense of them, accept them, learn something, and get on with our lives without the burden of the past—and be enriched from the experience.

I’ve thought about past events quite a bit.

Sometimes I’ve chided myself for it, feeling like I’m obsessing or something. But today I was reminded of why I sometimes mull over things.

I finally went through the last few boxes and jumbled, dusty piles of stuff in my garage and downstairs family room. Remnants of a previous life.

I bought the house I’m currently living in four years ago this month, and I ended my marriage with divorce a little before that. I had already hauled all these boxes and piles of stuff from one house (where I had lived with my ex-husband for over ten years) to another without a proper sorting through, though we had a big yard sale at one point. Then, after living in a new house for two years, I finally gave up on the marriage (after years of unhappiness and a lot of work not to mention couples counseling) and not only hauled the old stuff with me once again but also new stuff I had collected.

I’ve had so many different hobbies, interests, and projects over the years that I can’t even count them all. And that has meant stuff and more stuff.

I’ve sorted through things in stages, and I’ve thrown out a lot of stuff or donated it. I even had a big yard sale last summer. There was still more, but I only have so much time. Clutter drives me crazy, though, so I finally tackled the last of it.

There wasn’t all that much.

But it was interesting to see what stuff I was able to throw out or donate with nary a flutter of emotion other than feeling perplexed about why in the world I had saved any of it.

Last year, I donated my ridiculously expensive wedding gown and most of the associated paraphernalia to Goodwill, a charity that specializes in reselling used items to folks in need and providing job training.

But I saved a few mementos: my veil, my elbow-length gloves (also ridiculously expensive), the ring bearer’s pillow, and a little silk bag that I think was for the cards (gosh, it was only 13 years ago and already I can’t remember things).

Today I looked at this stuff, and I shook my head. Good heavens. What will I do with it? Gaze at it fondly and remember how much time, effort, and energy I spent on that wedding not to mention the relationship itself?

I tucked it all away in a pretty Victoria’s Secret box (what had originally been in that?) and hauled it off to Goodwill along with a carload of other things.

Some nice woman will get some use from it. I silently wished her well.

A few items in those last remaining boxes rightfully belong to my ex-husband, and I wrapped them up in a little box to be sent by post. I only saved things I’m pretty certain I’ll use in the future, like long-stemmed crystal wine glasses and a variety of contraptions to make cooking fun or easier: a lemon zester, a vegetable peeler that makes stripes, an apple slicer. A few lovely vases that I’ll use, I’m sure, when I get my little fixer-upper house all fixed up.

I’ll probably throw that stuff out in a year as well.

Thing is, I couldn’t have tossed this stuff—and felt completely at peace with it—if I hadn’t already done a lot of thinking about the past.

Not dwelling on the past for the sake of clinging to it, longing for it, or being attached to it, but more like a natural process of figuring out what went wrong. What did I do? What did he do? Who said what, why, and how? What mistakes did I make? Why did I marry someone who was so not right for me, and why did I think he was the one? What have I learned?

It’s a grieving process, too, as we mull over and eventually let go of the past. But I don’t think we can heal and let go if we don’t think about it.

If we don’t deal head on with the tough stuff, it doesn’t go anywhere. It doesn’t go away if we just stuff it down somewhere.

If we drown out the memories of a deep disappointment, a hurt, or a loss by keeping a stiff upper lip, constantly thinking positive, staying frantically busy or occupied, or intentionally refusing to think about it, it will still be there. We’ll still carry it with us. And it will make itself known in one way or another whether it’s the blues, irritability, anxiety, depression, nightmares, or you-name-it.

If our business fails, we can leave the building it occupied, but we still have to clear out our furniture, decide what to do with it, terminate employees, handle paperwork, and tie up all sorts of loose ends.

We also have to process our emotions and put the thoughts associated with them into their own little folders in our brains. We might even have to create new folders, but we won’t know what to name them until we do some thinking. And feeling.

Throwing away some of the things I’ve held on to for a few years, even if part of the reason was just not having time to sort through them, wouldn’t have driven the thoughts away. I’ve spent many a night lying awake remembering different scenes, things that were said and done on both sides.

It was hard when I bought my own house and moved because I moved right back to the general neighborhood where we had first lived together and spent the first few years of our marriage that never really worked out.

Memories were everywhere.

Streets, grocery stores, restaurants—even certain aisles in Home Depot, the big home supply store we used to visit as we created a home together. A little delicatessen where we got our bagels, another deli where he liked to get pickled herring, a strawberry farm where we picked strawberries.

The memories eventually fade as they’re understood and laid to rest. Life takes new directions and provides new things to ponder, things in the present, things in the now.

I kept one memento. There was no way I could throw out a large, old-fashioned silver goblet that we bought in the south of France. It was part of our ceremony, an old French custom in which both the bride and bridegroom drink wine from the goblet before breaking bread together—or maybe after; I forget. Plus, our names and the year of our marriage is inscribed on the goblet in flowing Edwardian script. I can’t picture anyone else using it, and I can’t picture it in the trash. It’s probably worth a few bucks, and I can probably sell it.

Maybe in another year it won’t matter.

Peace cannot be found by dwelling in the past, because the past doesn’t exist. There’s no peace in the future, either, because it hasn’t yet arrived. Peace can only be experienced right here, right now.

But just as we have to make practical plans for the future, we also need to resolve and understand things that happened in the past. It’s only when we understand those events that they truly recede into the past, and our present peace shines brighter and brighter as we greet the future with a smile.

Comments are always welcome.



Cathy | Treatment Talk

I have remarried, but I was divorced and a single mom at one time, so I can relate to your post and what to do with the “stuff.” My mom had kept my wedding gown for many years before I finally brought it to my house, but I wondered what to do with it as I was no longer in that marriage. I gave it away to a thrift store, and hopefully someone could use it or the material. I think we do have to resolve what has happened in the past.

I have definitely moved on, but since I have children with my ex-husband he will always be part of my life. We have come full circle to being friends again, but whispers of pain will always linger there. With every decision, there are always consequences, but I feel that I have accepted the situation and try to live in the present. It is the best place for me to be.
Cathy | Treatment Talk´s last blog post ..What is Addicted to Addicts: Survival 101?

Leah McClellan

Hi Cathy,
I have to wonder: what does anyone do with a wedding dress, years later, even if the marriage is long and happy? If someone else can wear it, like a sister or a daughter, that’s great. Otherwise, seems to me it’s just a dust collector. Maybe we women should have wedding dress rentals just like the guys usually rent their tuxes.
Special challenge when kids are involved, for sure. Maybe someday those whispers of pain will become whispers of peace…if I think way back to a long-term boyfriend/fiance that didn’t work out, I thought the pain would never go away. It did, and about the only thing left now is a chuckle as I roll my eyes and wonder what I saw in him in the first place :)

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