“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
— George Santayana
I believe that we humans spend a lot of time repeating our past — the mistakes, the patterns of behavior, the way we communicate with others. We’re creatures of habit and habits are hard to break. We believe, “Hey, this has worked for me in the past, so why not keep doing it?”
Except that sometimes, we’re deluding ourselves. We think something has worked for us in the past, when in fact, it hasn’t at all. We believe our style of communication is effective with our partner, when all the while our partner sits there and wonders what the hell it is we’re thinking.
History can be a great teacher and source of wisdom. This is true of history in the traditional sense — wars, a nation’s independence, how empires rise and tumble into time. But the kind of history I’m talking about is your own personal history. You know your history better than any other person alive today. You are the world’s foremost expert in the subject of You. So while a psychologist or therapist can help guide you to better understand You, at the end of the day, it’s still going to fall to one person to make a change — You.
Removing the Masks
To start, you’re going to need to take off some of the masks you wear — especially those you wear that delude yourself into thinking you’re a different person than you really are.
Start small, with something that isn’t really a big deal, but might help you do something just a little bit better than you do it today. Maybe it’s doing something around the house without being asked, maybe it’s taking an extra 10 minutes of the day to just be with yourself, maybe it’s actually talking to a loved one about something important on your mind. Maybe it’s deciding to talk back to just one negative thought you have every day.
Become successful with that one, small thing, and just keep doing it. Do it for a day, a week, then a month. You’re a winner — you’ve made one small change in your life and succeeded!
Taking Change Further
We often get bogged down in over-analyzing our past, hoping it will give us clues into how we can change our lives right here, right now. We believe — mistakenly, all too often — that the knowledge or insight we will gain from the past will give us what we need to change our behaviors, thoughts and feelings today.
Indeed, the past and our personal history has much it can teach us. Rome’s expansion into greater Europe can help guide future leaders into understanding what to (and not to) do in similar circumstances, but it can’t actually lay out a detailed blueprint for such guidance. So while our personal history can help us understand how or why things may have become the way they are today, it often cannot actually tell us what to do to change things right here and now.
Our history, therefore, can act as a reminder to our present. It doesn’t have to explain our present in order to change our current situation or life. It simply has to offer some clues as to what to do and not to do.
Learning from the Here and Now
What we can learn directly from personal history is often-times more immediate. “When I make this smart remark to my partner, he gets angry at me.” So sure, you can try and figure out why you’re so sarcastic toward him all the time. But maybe sarcasm is generally one of the traits he loves about you (just not directed at him all the time). Or you can simply stop making the same smart remark over and over again, and immediately solve the problem.
Yes, such change takes patience and trying over and over again. For instance, the next time you make the same remark, you may think, “Doh! I just did it again. I must try harder to remember next time.” If you keep thinking these thoughts to yourself, you’ll eventually catch yourself before you make the remark. And then boom, you’ve done it! You’ve successfully made another positive change in your life.
Living more in the here and now — or, as the popular term goes, more mindfully — helps us appreciate what to do next. Our history can provide us some general guidance, but changing our behavior requires using history as a source of wisdom, not as a source of change itself.
Happy Independence Day! May you celebrate your own personal independence day someday soon.