Learning from the past, living for today, planning for the future
There are three major tenses by which we express the time of our thoughts, feelings and behaviors: The PAST, PRESENT and FUTURE. All three have value depending on how we use them to enrich our lives. For example, there is a difference between living in the past and learning from it. In the same vein, we can make a distinction between worrying about the future and planning for it. The present is here and now, the moment. The present tense is the most immediate of all three. It represents real time life. The purpose of this article is to illustrate how our thoughts, feelings and actions influence how we live our lives, whether it be in the past, present or future.
Of what value is it to live in the past? Someone who lives in the past could be the person who holds onto grudges or who voluntarily chooses not to forgive someone for some wrongdoing even after coming to terms with the related anger. The person who is chronically angry is another example of someone who lives in the past because chronic anger is a set-up to deny the present moment. These three examples illustrate how easy it is to get stuck in the past. There is more to life than feeling angry all of the time.
Lets stay with the theme of ANGER because it is an interesting emotion. Even though there is a difference between feeling angry and being violent, there is also a connection. Not all angry people act out in violent ways, but violent behavior usually has anger as its precursor. It is the violent behavior that gives anger its bad name.
Anger can either create or destroy. For any of us who mindlessly lives in the past, the anger is usually a destructive force because there is no present moment thought on how its expression can impact our future. What others see instead is someone who acts impulsively, based on the need for instant gratification. To the person who learns from their past, the anger can be a creative energy used to build something. Write a book. Play football. It takes work to make a conscious decision to channel our angry energy into something productive. Many people avoid going to jail because they choose to sublimate their chronic anger into sports rather than to impulsively act it out.
Our past can also be a fountainhead of our memories and history. It is important to remember how we used to think, feel and act if we want to understand who we are today and what we want to do tomorrow. Understanding our past gives us the wisdom to stop making the same mistakes over and over. It is more rational to learn from our past than be doomed to repeat it. This means learning to make some different choices here-and-now. A history of violence would no longer be a predictor of violence.
Living in the past is different than learning from it. To live in the past means losing our focus for today. We are denied the present moment. Conversely, to learn from the past means to acknowledge it, accept having made good and bad choices along the way and then let it go. We can then focus on living for today and planning for the future.
The FUTURE is a time that has yet to happen. Some people report they can predict the future with their crystal ball. Predicting the future is unlikely, but believing that we can see into the future helps us to worry less about it. Most of us do worry about the future, but when it becomes a distraction to what we are doing right now, it is self-defeating. If we must worry about what could happen to us, it is better to set aside some time, lets say one hour a day, to obsess about it. Worry is a thought, and we can control our thoughts. Use the other 23 hours of the day to do something useful like work, play, prayer or rest. Worrisome thoughts can be a distraction to what we want to do or say right now.
Planning for the future is different than worrying about it. To plan means to set short and long term goals/objectives that help us to realize our human potential on different levels. It takes rational thought to plan for our basic survival needs, family, career, vacation or retirement.
When we are physically and emotionally attending to someone in the here-and-now, our eye contact, body language and listening skills reflect a present tense focus. We are paying attention. Our eyes are not wandering, nor are we worried about what we might next say. To be grounded in the present means to appear more genuine and real during a conversation.
The past is a cancelled check. The future is a promissory note. The present is like paying cash. Each of them means something different.
Quotable Quote: Jim Leyland, Detroit Tigers manager, on the importance of living in the moment during a baseball game, "You can't chew yesterday's breakfast today, and you can't play Thursday's game on Tuesday". Focus on today!
Thanks to Dalta Raju, M.D., for the title to this article.
Mark S. Rogers, LPC.
Licensed Professional Counselor