“Retreating is not surrendering, it’s gathering one’s strength”, that’s a literal translation of a SePedi saying(Go tshetshela morago ase go tshaba, ke go tseya maatla). More aptly, this saying conjures up a picture of one engaged in battle, when defeat looks imminent, the person retreats, only to regroup and come back stronger, to continue the battle with more power.
Most people would like the world to believe that they lead a regret-free like. And sure there are those people who do. Bless them. For the rest of humanity, those of us who look back and wish that at certain pivotal moments during the course of our lives we could have made different decisions, looking back is necessary. Looking back will indeed give us the power to continue, to a regret-free future, hopefully.
There is a very persuasive movement currently underway, a movement towards “what’s done is done”, or “forget regret or life is yours to miss”. This movement wants us to believe that looking back, evening just a casual glance over your shoulder will cause you to stagnate, or even worse, stumble and fall. I call them anti-revisionists, it just sounds like educated English, you can call them whatever you like. These people believe if you focus positively on the future the past doesn’t matter.
I’m one of those people who look back and honestly wish I had made certain decisions differently. Regret? Not really. I don’t wish I could go back there, No. I just wish at those pivotal moments I could have had the wisdom that hindsight so liberally imbues us with. You know what they say, with hindsight everyone’s a genius, or something like that.
Where I differ fundamentally with anti-revisionists is that looking back will hold you back. In fact, I would recommend stopping, sitting down and having a good look at the path that’s brought you where you are. If it looks good, bless you. If, like me, looking back makes you want to hurry forward, running away from your past, then the anti-revisionists are right, you’ll go nowhere.
If looking back fills you with shame or pain, then looking back is absolutely necessary. Whilst life doesn’t provide us with an opportunity to go back an undo whatever damage was done, it does provide us with an opportunity to go back there mentally and make peace with that past. That way the past can stay in the past and you can go forward peacefully. But how do you know if you need to go back digging into your past? How do you know if making peace with it will help?
The way I see it or have experienced it is that if there is an extended period in your past that fills you with shame, pain or fear when you think of the events of that time, then you need to go against the anti-revisionists and go back there. From personal experience, the amount of power that one gets from staring the shame, the fear and the pain in the face is immeasurable. I am not suggesting it’s easy or painless. It’s not. It must be harrowingly painful in certain cases, especially those whose pasts are filled with all sorts of abuse. In cases like those, the looking back process obviously needs to be facilitated by a trained professional or counsellor.
For a long time I lived with a low-level fear of my past. It’s not a fear that sent me into shivers or anything but was just such a continuous feature of my life it became a part of me. It was there all the time but when I recently started facing up to it, it turned out I had made a mountain out of a molehill. I had this recurring fear about being ‘found out’ to be not who I put myself out to be. Sounds trivial, but if this thing is with you 24/7 it becomes so much a part of you.
You are always worried about your future because your past worries you, you worry that your future may turn out to be a leaf out of your past. So much so that when I started looking back, facing up to it, and found out the source of the shame and fear, it automatically diminished. Like they say, you can actually feel the load lift off your shoulders.
Because this fear was a part of me for so many years, when it started lifting up and drifting off, I sort of “missed it”. I could literally feel the hollowness it left in me and I worried a bit that I was not worried anymore. Now I understand why the house slaves never wanted to leave the master when they were granted their freedom, the voice of the master had become so much a part of them that they believed they were nothing without the master. That hollowness needs to be filled with a positive outlook for the future. For me that positive outlook is my faith in Jesus, without it it’s so easy to allow the enemy, the fear, back in.
What the anti-revisionists forget to tell people is that unless you have made peace with events in your past, you can only move forward to more of the same. Making peace with your past for me, takes courage. It doesn’t mean torturing yourself with unchangeable events, but rather, going back to those events and dis-empowering them, taking that power back into your current life. Then you can move forward. I’ve heard it said before that “hurting people hurt people”. Logically, it makes no sense that a person who has survived terrible events(like abuse) would want to visit those on another human being because they know the pain it can cause. But people do, some abuse survivors carry on to abuse others. Looking back in cases like those is painful but absolutely necessary.
An online commentator says: “it’s not easy to look back, but when we do, we face the truth. You open the wound with courage and the determination to move forward. You deal with whatever you need to deal with…you are going back there for the impact you want to make, the story you want to tell”(www.thenakedelephant.com).
I, indeed have a story to tell. So do you. Don’t look at it as regret, rather look at it as slaying your dragons. I hope that whatever it is that fills you with shame, pain or fear in your past will one day get a very special visit from you. A visit that will leave the fear disrobed, the pain eased and the shame dis-empowered. After all, retreating is not surrender, it’s refueling for the battles that lie ahead.