The Tentacles of the Past

I doubt few among us live without regrets: failure seems to be part of the human tapestry to which none can escape. Often we continue to beat ourselves up for acts or words already committed -- already forgiven -- already forsaken. Why? Are we gluttons for punishment? Do we enjoy being haunted by the past? The tentacles of the past are only given power, ironically, by us. The past is a memory. If you keep looking back then you can't move forward. Metaphorically, Jesus confesses the same (Luke 9:62).

You confess that you can't forget the past. Alright, let us address the past. You, I, and billions of other people have uttered words and committed acts for which we are ashamed. The fact that we are ashamed should be telling enough: this indicates that we care: we care about the ones we hurt and we care about ourselves. This is great! But do you live in the past or in the present? What we did in the past is not what we are doing in the present. Quoted at length, from his book Liturgical Life Principles: How Episcopal Worship Can Lead to Healthy and Authentic Living, Ian Markham writes the following about the past:
Christians believe that God has dealt decisively with the past. God has absorbed our past into the act of God in Christ. God has the authority to forgive us. We can offer the past back to God knowing that the death of Christ on the cross has made all the difference. This is most important for healthy living.

The past can so easily haunt us. It is difficult to escape the tentacles of the past, for the past can [not "will" but "can"] reach out and destroy the present [if we allow the past this power]. So many individuals repeat the mistakes of the past: the woman who escapes one abusive husband only to marry another or the person who was neglected as a child and who goes on to neglect his own children. And even if our experience isn't that dramatic, we often allow the past to destroy the quality of the present. Sometimes it is just the painful memories; for others it is the inability to commit to the possibilities of the present. We are all exhorted to give our past to God.

In giving God the past, we are freed up to enjoy the present. Often the consequences of the past will still have to be tolerated, but the power of the past is eliminated.
Do not confuse consequences from the past with living in the past now. If you have consequences from past actions that does not mean you have to live in the past right now. As long as those past actions and attitudes and dispositions are done, and forsaken, then you are free to make healthy choices now and live free. The past is over and done with and we are free to let the past remain in the past.


The popular saying today, "It is what it is," reminds me of another: "What's done is done." Since we cannot go back and fix the past -- we cannot grab those wrong words and put them back into our mouths nor not do what we actually did -- then there is, truly, only one healthy path: forward. So you messed up, even royally, and you are horrified. Be glad that you are horrified. Some people have very little conscience left and are unaffected by their horrible actions or words. But you can still move forward while being horrified by your past. But do not remain in a state of being horrified.

If you remain in a state of being horrified by your past then you will not be able to move forward. You live in the now, not in the past, and not even in the future. Your future is determined by the choices you are making in the now. Make good choices in the now to secure a good future. But leave the past in the past. You don't live there anymore. You live in the now. Also, don't allow others to keep you in the past, as though the past you is the you in the now. If people remind you of your past then remind them that the past you is not the you in the now. Don't you dare allow others to take a snapshot of your past and force you into that mold. Be the best you that you can be in the now by making good and healthy decisions. The tentacles of the past cannot reach you in the forgiveness you retain in the now.


Ian S. Markham, Liturgical Life Principles: How Episcopal Worship Can Lead to Healthy and Authentic Living (New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2009), 18-19.


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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.