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Reacting in the present to memories of the past

In the letter to the Hebrews, the writer compares our spiritual journey as followers of Jesus to a runner competing in that most gruelling of races, the ancient Greek marathon. In keeping with this theme, he urges us to “lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Heb. 12:1).

I find the idea of a weight or an encumbrance quite fascinating. We all have a tendency to hoard; anyone who has ever attempted to shift house after living in the same location for many years knows what it is like to clear out a truck load of unused and long-forgotten possessions. In fact, this human idiosyncrasy has given rise to one of the most successful cottage industries in the world: the weekend garage sale!

However, it’s not only physical possessions that we accumulate as we travel through life; we also stockpile and index experiential memories. People, places, events – a kaleidoscope of experiences are stored away in the virtual domain of our memory bank. Although these memories are incorporeal and therefore invisible (no surgeon, whilst operating on a patient, has ever discovered a ‘memory’ or indeed, a thought of any description amidst the grey matter of the human brain), they nevertheless trigger extraordinary physical and emotional reactions.

For example, just the thought of a delicious meal is enough to activate one’s digestive juices; just the thought of being lost in a crowd or locked in a confined space is enough to activate one’s sweat glands and accelerate one’s heart rate. In other words, one’s body cannot differentiate between what is real (in the sense of present experience) and what is remembered or imagined.

Living in the now

When I ask an audience, “How many of you are living in the now?” I generally receive a positive response. Most of us believe that we are living in present moment awareness. However, more often than not we are reacting in the present to someone or something that has triggered the memory of a past experience. Consequently, what we think of as a spontaneous response is actually a subconscious reaction based on our accumulated experiences.

For example, imagine that you are driving along the road and you suddenly hear blaring sirens and see blue flashing lights. What is your immediate response? Does your heart start beating a little faster; do beads of perspiration form on your brow? Do you find yourself checking the speedometer to see if you are exceeding the speed limit? Given the fact that you have had ‘bad’ experiences with the police in the past, that is most likely how you would react.

But imagine if you had never encountered the police before; imagine if you didn’t know who they were or what power they wielded. You would probably respond to the sirens and flashing lights with a mixture of caution and curiosity – but certainly not trepidation and foreboding.

How many of you like garlic prawns? Personally, I love garlic prawns and I could eat them for breakfast, lunch and dinner! But imagine if, on one occasion, you visit a restaurant and eat a bad prawn and contract food poisoning. You become violently ill and that one experience permanently ruins your enjoyment of garlic prawns. The next time you dine at a restaurant and the people at the adjoining table order garlic prawns, the very smell of those spicy crustaceans reminds you, in vivid detail, of your ‘near death’ experience.

There’s a 99% probability that there is nothing wrong with the garlic prawns that the people are enjoying at the next table. However, memory is such a powerful thing; just the memory of a bad experience can recreate the very same symptoms. You start to feel nauseous, but the problem is not with the garlic prawns at the adjoining table but with the garlic prawns in your memory. So you say to your dinner partner, “I’m going to have step outside and get some fresh air before it is too late!”

Our reaction to present moment events often appears to be out of all proportion to the incidents themselves. Once again, this is because the present only serves as a trigger to remind us of the accumulated experiences of the past. For example, let’s say that a woman gets remarried and one night she says to her new husband, “Darling, would you please take out the trash?” He replies, “I’m sorry, I’m in the middle of an important project and I can’t afford to leave it.” All of a sudden she arcs up and exclaims, “You never do anything around here; it’s always left to me. If I don’t do it, it doesn’t get done!”

The poor husband looks at her in astonishment and says, “What are you talking about? All I said was that I can’t do it right now because I’m engaged in this project.” What he doesn’t realise is that in his wife’s first marriage, she spent 15 years with a man who was totally lazy and irresponsible, and that in that relationship she had to do virtually everything. When her new husband says, “I can’t take the trash out”, it immediately reminds her of the 15 years of pain and anguish and abuse she suffered at the hands of that irresponsible jerk. And so she reacts subconsciously, not so much against her new husband, but against the memory of her old husband. But of course, he doesn’t understand that, and so a new cycle of conflict ensues.

It’s important to understand that when we marry someone, we don’t just marry that person – we marry all of their past experiences. That’s one of the reasons why, statistically speaking, second marriages have twice as much chance of failing as first marriages (and the figures for first marriages aren’t great anyway). And these days, with so many couples engaging in sexual relations before marriage, it’s not even a case of first or second marriage because, in a de facto sense, many people have already been ‘married’ 5 or 7 or 10 times before they finally walk down the aisle in a white dress or a three piece suit.

Because we tend to keep on attracting the same kind of person, the new ‘Mr. Perfect’ or ‘Miss Wonderful’ will inevitably say or do something at some point in the relationship that will remind us, at a subconscious level, of a former partner and thereby trigger unresolved and long-suppressed feelings of anger, resentment, fear or shame. As a result, our reaction is disproportionate to the present situation; we are not looking at the person standing in front of us as much as at a person from our past, who is alive and well in the virtual domain of our memory.

We are all, to some extent, prisoners of the conditioning of our past: the ridicule heaped upon us at age seven by a careless schoolteacher that continues to influence our attitude toward authority figures; the sexual abuse perpetrated upon us at age ten by a trusted family member that continues to sabotage our ability to enjoy intimacy with our spouse; the shame we experienced at age eleven when we forgot our lines in the school play that continues to undermine our attempts at public speaking; and so on …

The path to freedom

The Bible says that the tests and trials that we experience are common to everyone; we ought not to think it strange as though it was only happening to us! Moreover, “God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tested beyond the limits of your endurance, but with the testing will also make the way of escape so that you may come through it victoriously” (1 Cor. 10:13).

Understand this: in every trial there is a way out. In every form of bondage or imprisonment, there is a path to freedom. But it’s exactly that – a path or a process, not the waving of a magic wand or the recitation of a magic formula.

The apostle Paul had a fair amount of baggage to deal with in his life, including his part in Stephen’s murder and the subsequent persecution of the Christians. In his own words, Paul was a “blasphemer, persecutor, and a violently arrogant man” (1 Tim. 1:13). Like everyone else, Paul had to go through the process of leaving the past behind with its sins and regrets, in order to embrace the opportunities that were set before him.

Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those thing which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Phil. 3:12-14).

‘Forgetting’ is not just blotting something out of our mind or pretending that it never happened. In Biblical terms, ‘forgetting’ is a process that involves acknowledgement (confessing our sins and shortcomings), ownership (accepting personal responsibility and not blaming others), and restoration (cleansing and healing). The apostle John put it this way: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

In order to forget, we have to make a conscious decision to let go of the past. And that’s precisely what the word ‘forgiveness’ means: to remit, send away, release. Jesus said, “Remember Lot’s wife” (Luke 17:32). If Lot’s wife teaches us anything, it’s that we can’t look in two directions at the same time. We have to let the old go so that we can lay hold of the new.

In conclusion, I would like to suggest two strategies to help you deal with the things in the past that are hindering you from embracing God’s call and fulfilling your potential.

1. Learn to recognise the past when it reappears in the present because it most certainly will. Your personal history will keep on repeating itself until you change the script.

Recognise when the same old song starts playing, when the same old pattern starts forming.

Ask yourself the question, “Why am I reacting this way? What feelings are being aroused in me right now? What does this person or situation remind me of? What subconscious memory is it triggering in my mind?”

2. Seize the opportunity to deal with the past in the present. You don’t have to get into a foetal position and pretend you’re back in your mother’s womb. You don’t have to try and relive your childhood or adolescence. But you can deal with the past when it resurfaces in the present.

One moment of awareness and decisive action can change the course of your life! It’s like looking in the mirror and saying, “Aha,” or maybe, “Oh my God, that’s what I’m really like!” In that moment of awareness you can acknowledge the root of the problem, take responsibility for the position you find yourself in, and ask the Holy Spirit to begin the process of cleansing and healing.

It’s choosing to remove the chains of the past and walk free. It’s realising that one bad experience should not be allowed to affect the rest of your life. It’s going to the source of the problem, sprinkling the salt of God’s grace, and healing the waters (2 Kings 2:21).

Sometimes the Holy Spirit has to take us back, in our mind’s eye, to the ‘scene of the crime’ so that we can extend and receive forgiveness. Sometimes we need to have an imaginary conversation with the key players involved and tell them what they did to us, how it made us feel, how it has affected our lives, and how we are choosing this day to forgive them and release ourselves from their influence, once and for all.

Believe me, it doesn’t take 921 sessions of psycho-analysis, or 10 years of appointments with a personal therapist. In one moment of decisive action we can set ourselves free, by the power of the Holy Spirit, from the influence and control of the past, and walk away a new man or a new woman!

That’s what Paul meant when he wrote, “forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead.” It’s saying to the experiences of the past, “You no longer have a hold on me. I’m a new person, a free person, a healed person. And I’m reaching for the things that God has set before me – greater and more glorious things than I’ve ever experienced before!”

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