There is Only Now
“There is only now.” — Eckhart Tolle
The benefit of looking back on our past is to learn and remember what has brought us to be the person we are today. This is best done with an objective mindset, as a learner, so that we do not get caught up in trying to change the past or begin a cycle of regret. Instead, we look at history, both personal and global, as a stepping stone on the path of growth.
As time goes by, the Disney/Pixar movie Inside Out grows in its ability to impact me on deep emotional levels. At first, I found it funny and sentimental, tears were shed, and Pixar had delivered another great movie. It became a road trip favorite, so as the kids watched it in the back seat, I listened.
Soon it became an essential tool in my life for reflecting on how to move with and through change. I found a kindred spirit in Riley as I remember the pangs of growing up, moving states, and feeling as if there was so much out of my control. Whereas Riley left her life in Minnesota for a life in San Fransisco, I left a life in Southern California for the high desert of Arizona; dramatic differences in landscapes and way of life. Riley and I were kids who had to leave our best friends behind and enter this new life with none.
With each viewing or listen, I saw not only myself in Riley but each of my daughters. They have both had to accept change in life as well as grieve loss. We have all had our dark nights of the soul, where we feel like everything is crumbling inside of us. Our stories are sprinkled with friendships that last or fade, love gained and love lost, and ultimately, these changes are opportunities for us to build resilience.
Responding to the Past
Responding to being present requires us to abandon the thoughts of “what should be” and replace them with “what could be.” We cannot change the past, we can only learn from it. The present, or at least how we respond to the present, is what we have the power to control. Our future is formed by our now.
In J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo holds the ring in his hands and laments his current state in relation to the past:
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” — Gandalf
Whether it’s Riley, Frodo, me, or you, we all have to accept where we are in life right now, regardless if we are here by choice or circumstance. The past requires a response, so hold on to it loosely, but don’t let go. This dance between choice and circumstance is taking place right now, and swaying with its rhythm, we find a way through each day.
Like Frodo, we are all standing here with some sort of ring in our hands. We hold a trauma, a loss, a debt, or a responsibility that we wish were not ours to bear. At times it enrages us, and at times it feels too heavy a burden. It can drive us mad or drive us forward.
There are no re-dos in the past, only acceptance or regret. We cannot erase a loss, only deal with the space it leaves. There is no reliving the past but there is a reframing of how we view it. Our response to our past will frame our future.
Framing the Future
I can sit here in anger or sadness because of missed opportunities, bad circumstances, or faded relationships, but that does not bring goodness or healing to myself or the world. Dwelling on what was, what is not, and what could have been can take us down dark paths. In Riley’s case from Inside Out, she convinces herself that abandoning her current life by running away from home and returning to her past would soothe her anger and bring her happiness.
This decision is made in fear, anger, and disgust. Interestingly, the darkest part of her story takes place not only in the absence of joy but also in the absence of sadness. Joy was at the wheel trying to power through these big changes by looking for all of the good there was to be found. This is a good way to approach life, looking for the good, but not at the expense of demonizing sadness, or stubbornly refusing to accept that some situations in life just suck.
Framing the future is taking place right now, it’s all part of it. When we put in our hours at our place of work, read a book with our children, run a mile, write in our journal, have a conversation, sit with someone in pain or joy, cast a vote, watch a movie, sit in silence, or even play a game with some friends; it all plays into our tomorrow. Even if we are enduring painful change or carrying the burden of pain for a loved one, it is valuable to our story and our tomorrow.
Sit With It
Back to Inside Out. There is a moment when the character Joy realizes that she cannot motivate the character, Bing Bong, to carry on in their mission, the power of positive thinking just isn’t working in other words. At this moment, the character Sadness just sits next to Bing Bong and acknowledges the painful state of his situation. Together they talk about the painful change that has taken place in life, and recognize that it feels bad; and somehow, this acknowledgment of what is creates an acceptance and a window of motivation to move forward.
I spent most of my adult life as a joy powered person. I was not always joyful but carried this unyielding optimism that everything is okay, even when it was not. This played an important role in creating happiness, building relationships, and building resilience; yet all of the positive thinking in the world can turn into frustrating thinking if I use it as a crutch or a way to avoid dealing with difficult or painful situations.
So I have been learning how to sit with the present, even if the present is dealing with the past. I stand on the edge of a knife, and the bevels lean toward hope or despair, and you know what, hope feels so much better than despair.
Life is a momentum. There are so many stories taking place, ours included, and we have a responsibility to this storyline to reach our potential. So whatever lies behind us, respond to it. Take what we find and frame our future. Finally, whatever tears at us, whatever holds us back, be there with it and call it for what it is. Every minute that lies before us is ours to frame, and in that framing may we find the spark of hope, and the thrill of life.