“You can’t change the past.”
Well, perhaps this is true when it comes to literal events. But working as a therapist and coach the last 24 years has taught me otherwise.
Couples who engage in marital therapy provide obvious evidence that the past really does change. As therapy begins, I typically do one session alone with each client. We explore their background, family of origin, and concerns. Since each client is in my office due to concern about their marriage, I explore these concerns. I can’t tell you how many times clients have described a particular moment on their wedding day. They say something like this. “I woke up on my wedding day and I had this bad feeling in the pit of my stomach, sort of like dread. I heard this little voice in the back of my mind warning me not to follow through with it. I just dismissed this as the typical cold feet people have just before their weddings. But now I know, I should have paid attention.” If I had five dollars for every time I’ve heard this idea expressed, I would buy Costa Rica.
What’s fascinating is what happens from there. Depending on how the relationship repair goes determines the client’s evolving relationship with the past; how he or she interprets that past moment on the wedding day. When their marriage improves, then the client will interpret the moment before the wedding one way. “That moment before my wedding….that was just typical cold feet. Everyone feels that way. It didn’t mean anything.” When the marriage declines, then another interpretation is given to the moment. “That moment before my wedding, the one I told you about when we first met….it was real and I should have listened. Then I would have avoided all this pain.”
In reality, who knows what that moment meant at the time. It was a significant moment, since the clients remember it so well many years later. But their relationships to those moments change, depending on their present experience. We largely interpret past events in light of our current life experience. So the past does not literally change, yet our relationship to the past changes depending on our current life circumstances, changing the meaning of the past in our present.
And this is a healthy dynamic. Engaging the present, living in this very moment…this is the essence of living. Healthy and adaptive people are able to change their relationships with the past in order to serve them well in the present.
Maybe this is part of redemption. When we change our relationship to past events, the painful, hurtful, debilitating events…then they are redeemed. No longer do they have power over us.
It turns out that the past DOES change. May we actively engage in changing the past for the good.