Reflect on the past but don’t dwell on the past

Michelangelo sculpted four intentionally unfinished works: The Bearded Slave (shown here), The Atlas Slave, The Awakening Slave and The Young Slave. Though they appear unfinished, they are just as he intended them to be. He wanted to show what it might feel like to be forever enslaved.

Sadly, some people choose to be enslaved by their past.

Years ago, a man came to me for counseling. When I asked him why he had come, he spoke about how his employer had taken advantage of him and then fired him. As he told the details, he became visibly emotional—flushed face, moist eyes, quivering lips…

About ten minutes into the session I asked, “When did this happen?” (Recently, I assumed.) He answered, “Seventeen years ago.”

Oh my…

While I wanted to empathize with him regarding the alleged employer abuse, I was shocked that he had allowed this one incident to negatively influence his life for so long.

Now to the other extreme, I have a friend who continually (and almost exclusively) talks about the “good old days.” Doing so seems to make him a positive, joyful person (though at times I think he’s hiding something; surely something in his past was unsettling) but he’s also stuck in time. He has no vision for the future because he constantly lives in the past.

Let me suggest that there’s a difference between reflecting on your past and dwelling on it.

Reflect on your past so you can be grateful for the positive experiences and learn from the painful ones. But, don’t dwell on your past, or the positive experiences may cause you to be smug, complacent, and apathetic about future possibilities and the painful experiences may eventually pollute your soul. Just as there are two ways to fall off a horse, there are two ways an obsession with the past can unbalance us.

Think more about the present and future than you do the past. Enjoy the wonder of each hour and dream about a better tomorrow. View the past as a prelude to the future. Always have something to look forward to.

Free yourself from unhelpful introspection.

Question: What are your thoughts about this essay? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Here’s a video about Michelangelo’s unfinished sculptures.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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8 thoughts on “Reflect on the past but don’t dwell on the past

  1. In general I agree with the author. Yet…
    I think it is easy for white americans to encourage people to “move on” but it is quite another thing to suggest this to those who have been harmed by the lingering social effects of slavery / Jim Crow when they are still at an extreme disadvantage in education and career opportunities. The author doesn’t come out and say this has anything to do with race nor am I accusing him of indirectly finding fault with those who are still impacted by minority issues. However, given the climate of our generation it’s hard to not hear some of that.

    • Tom, you’re right in saying that I had no thoughts of social injustices when I wrote this post. It was written with the individual in mind, not societies. I do believe that it is counterproductive for any of us to stay so wrapped up in the past that we cannot function healthily in the present. That doesn’t do anyone any good. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Don

  2. Excellent article and I enjoyed the link on You Tube about the Four Giants by Michaelangelo.

    Really excellent for those of us over 60 to keep pressing on and not living in the past and to forgive those who have hurt us intentionally or unintentionally in the past.

    Thank you for sharing,

    Jan

    • Thanks, Jan, for encouraging words. You’re right, the more years we live, the more time we may spend looking in the rearview mirror. Don