How to Reconcile with Your Unhappy Past

We all encounter unhappy events or experiences in our lives – hurts, disappointments and tragedies. Normally, over a period of time, we overcome them and move on. However, sometimes these unhappy past events or experiences keep on replaying in our minds affecting our lives negatively.

For example, you might be constantly struggling with thoughts about an unhappy childhood, a bad experience in school or college, failure in studies or career, a close friend who cheated on you, or a boss who harassed you or something like this.

Interestingly enough, most people who harbor feelings of resentment and regret may not be actually experiencing any negative event or situation during their present. But unfortunately, they keep re-living the past experiences by constantly thinking about them.

All the negative and unpleasant past events and experiences can be classified into three categories:

  • What we did to ourselves – our mistakes, failures, wrong decisions.
  • What others did to us – conflicts, hurts, disappointments.
  • What nature has done – calamity, sickness, loss of loved ones etc.

Why do we need to reconcile with our unhappy past? Thinking about our unhappy past robs the joy of the present moment. We constantly live with guilt or bitterness. By dwelling in our past, we miss what God is doing in the present. Too much dwelling in the past drains our energy. It can cause stress and health problems like insomnia, migraines etc. The unsettled past can reduce the quality of our relationships as we hesitate to trust others. It can actually hold us back from what God wants us to become and achieve in our lives.

Now, how can we deal with this ever-bothering past. How to come to terms with the regrets of life? To find out the answer, let us look into a passage in Genesis 45, where Joseph, a familiar character to all of us, dealt with his own terrible past.

“4 Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come close to me.” When they had done so, he said, “I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! 5 And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. 6 For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will be no plowing and reaping. 7 But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance.”

As we know, Joseph was a young innocent boy when his brothers out of jealousy attempted to murder him. Joseph narrowly escaped death, when they changed their mind to sell him to Midianites who were on their way to Egypt. After a brief time as a slave boy in the house of Potiphar, he was put in prison.  He went through distressing times, before he could become the Prime Minister of Egypt. And now, things so worked out that those very brothers stood before him as helpless foreigners.

Instead of blaming the circumstances and harbouring bitter and revengeful attitude towards his brothers, Joseph looked at the situation from an entirely different vantage point. He was not angry with his brothers. He was neither blaming them nor himself. In fact, his brothers were filled with deep regret for what they had done to Joseph. They were so guilty that they could not see him in his eyes. But Joseph consoled his brothers, asking them not to be angry with themselves, because God worked out everything for good. It was a great relief and comfort for his brothers.

By dealing with his past from a different perspective, Joseph not only healed himself but also brought healing to his brothers. His past did not change, but the way he looked at his past changed. His feelings and emotions about the past events and the people involved in those events have changed. And it made all the difference.

Based on how Joseph reconciled with his unpleasant and otherwise a heart-breaking past, here are the ways in which we can deal with our own unhappy past.

Realize the possibility of committing mistakes

Accept the fact that you are a human being and could commit mistakes. You could fail, not once but many times. Don’t get into the trap of perfectionism. You will always be vulnerable and may not become a perfect human being in this life. Learn to be comfortable with what you think as an imperfect past. Life need not be perfect to be beautiful.

Kintsugi is an interesting Japanese art of putting broken pottery pieces back together with gold. It is built on the idea that in embracing flaws and imperfections, you can create an even stronger, more beautiful piece of art.

You need not worry about your cracks; God has been filling those cracks with gold. They are no more ugly and uncomfortable. You are becoming stronger and more beautiful. God filled all the cracks in Joseph’s life so that it became beautiful and blessed.

Recognize the hand of God during the past events

Joseph was 100% sure that God was with him all through his life events. . . when he was thrown in to the pit, sold into Egypt as a slave, and even when he was thrown into prison for no fault of his. It is not that God wanted him to suffer, but God was working through all those events to make Joseph who he became.

When we bring our unhappy and painful past – with all our mistakes, failures, hurts and disappointments – to God, he can take them and turn them into blessings. Our God is expert in bringing beauty out of ashes.

Following poem describes the feelings of an elementary school teacher. His student comes to him with a spoiled sheet. He goes to God with a spoiled day. Something beautiful happens in both cases.

He came to my desk with a quivering lip, the lesson was done. “Have you a new sheet for me, dear teacher? I’ve spoiled this one.” I took his sheet, all soiled and blotted and gave him a new one all unspotted. And into his tired heart I cried, “Do better now, my child.”

I went to the throne with a trembling heart; the day was done. “Have you a new day for me, dear Master? I’ve spoiled this one.” He took my day, all soiled and blotted and gave me a new one all unspotted. And into my tired heart he cried, “Do better now, my child.”

You need not carry the burden of your past. You don’t have to go through that emotional turmoil. You need not feel guilty about the wasted years. Bring it into hands of God and let him take all that is spoiled and ugly and give you a brand-new future.

Record the lessons from the past and learn from them

Sometime, it may help to sit down and take a careful look at the bothering past, and analyse if you can learn some lessons from it. In fact, every challenge gave you an insight. Every failure made you wiser. Every difficult person you encountered taught you a lesson. You can actually use those lessons to improve the way you deal with your present.
Looking at the past introspectively is not bad as long as you are careful to know the difference between introspection and rumination. If you feel that, you are drawing lessons from the past, or enjoying the past, then it is more likely that you are being introspective. On the other hand, if your thoughts about the past are full of regrets and bitterness, or your thoughts have a repetitive automatic quality, it’s likely that you are ruminating.
Joseph constantly improved the way he dealt with people through the learnings of his past. He learnt to be more matured and considerate in his dealing with people. His learnings helped him make his way from prison to palace.

Reconstruct the story of your past from a divine perspective

More than actual events of the past, the thing that bothers us is the story that we have developed around those events. There is a story that you tell yourself every time about the past. Is that story helping you or hurting you? Is that story binding you or liberating you? If it is not helping and liberating, why don’t you change that story? Why not develop a new narrative around your past?

A past event that is bothering you has some unpleasant emotions attached to it. Try to develop a divine perspective about the event, which can dispel those unpleasant emotions. When this happens, you don’t have to forget your past, which sometimes is not possible, but you become friends with your past. You can see a value in your past, however unpleasant it was.

As Joseph did, start looking at your past from different point of view. Develop a new story, this time making God a central part in it. Develop a heavenly perspective, which can liberate you from the g than an earthly perspective.

Settling your thoughts about a troubling past liberates you to become a person God wants you to become. You will be empowered to face the present with new energy. You will be able to see more clearly, the new opportunities for your future. God is calling you to press on, not to turn back.

Dr. Prasad Talluri leads the Strategy & Research Management Team in World Vision India, a non-profit organization. He has master degrees in Zoology, Theology and Social Work and a Ph.D. in Zoology. He is passionate about helping people solve their problems, reach their potential and achieve their purpose, through his work and writings. He lives in Chennai, with his wife Chandrakantha and daughter Mahima.

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