2014 is over halfway behind us. Has it flown by for you? That has been the case for me this year. It seems as though it was just a blink ago that I was sharing the holiday season with my daughter and her family in Oklahoma. Now I am about to go back again to Oklahoma for some summer fun! On days where the rush of time passing gives me pause, I am reminded of the value in looking back even as we live in the present.
This is one of those subjects where then can be some pesky “fine lines”. There are endless debates and writing on the competing values of looking forward vs. looking back. It can almost make them seem mutually exclusive of each other.
Like me, you have no doubt seen the many social media posts that talk about the “good old days” with a bit of a nostalgic, even bittersweet angst. Those images can appeal to the sentimental yearnings of our nature. However, they can also distort our perspective and set us up to somehow pit the “old days” against the “new days” in some sort of bizarre competitive dance.
One that I found amusing recently had a picture of an old hand crank operating wringer washing machine. Since that was something I actually used one summer I spent with a Great Aunt and Uncle, I could say I definitely remember that one! But I certainly don’t want to trade the multi-everything version I have today that allows me to multi-task laundry with just about anything else I do. And I definitely do not want my old typewriter back! I enjoy the luxuries of modern tools!
On the flip side, we also see many messages directing us to turn from the past. After all, we don’t live there anymore. We are encouraged to stop looking back at all and to only look forward.
So which is right? When we face these kinds of questions, it is where we can miss the opportunity to gain the best we can from every part of our life. We want to make things “either or”. But the truth is that there are very few times when we have to choose, or at the very least, we don’t have to choose exclusively. It is about perspective.
There is a difference between looking to the past and living in the past. Let that sink in a moment. We can look to the past without living there. That means the richness of the past can continue to serve even as we move to the future and all of the new opportunities afforded to us.
Here are six ways looking back can serve us. Using this as a checklist, we can keep things in the right perspective.
The first three focus on others from the past. These can be those from our personal circle or legacies from a broader stage.
To honor those that made a difference in the world and our lives
To learn from the experiences of those that traveled this path before us
To be inspired by the example of others that faced relatable challenges
Here in the USA, we all pause on September 11th and remember those that showed the world the face of courage. Each year we honor our veterans. Several of our holidays focus on specific figures from a shared history. Think for a moment about the popularity of quotes from historical figures. We pay attention to the wisdom expressed because we acknowledge the legacy of the speaker.
The next three focus on our personal experience.
To see how far we have come.
Sometimes the road ahead can shrink just by looking at the road behind. This can be a highly motivating use of looking back. Even if we haven’t come as far as we’d like, that can be motivating as well. It’s a check-point practice.
To use knowledge from a previous experience.
We want to repeat solutions that worked and avoid those that failed. When we are faced with a challenge, it is productive to think back to another time when we were faced with something similar and came through. What did we do? What can we use in this situation? This can also boost our self-confidence and allow us to handle challenges with more agility because we’ve mentally already overcome them simply by remembering past victories or knowing what pitfalls to avoid.
To give ourselves (and others) the opportunity to change perspectives.
Sometimes in life, particularly where there has been some pain, it can greatly distort our perspective about a person, an exchange or an event. Distance can be a great leveling period that allows us to diffuse the more acute emotional responses and see things with a clearer mind. That allows us to change our own perspective and hopefully, be open to learn, to forgive (ourselves or others) and to build on a stronger layer of understanding and empathy for others.
Three based on others. Three based on ourselves.
Begin today. Look to the past. Embrace it. Leverage it. But don’t live there. Use it to make a better tomorrow: For yourself, your family, your community and ultimately, our world.
Live well. Live today like you want tomorrow to be.