The Past Never Lasts: Changing the Past from the Future
“The past never lasts”. Such was the slogan posted on a colleagues’ bulletin board, when I worked in a treatment center for traumatized adolescents. My colleague used it to remind her young clients that things might seem bad for now, but that any memory that brings pain is but a fleeting experience. Here today, gone tomorrow. The past, in other words, is always a viewpoint from the present.
However, there is another reason why the past never lasts, and that is that the past has not been written yet.
One of the hallmarks of being human is that events in time are not just something that happens to us. Their meaning has always yet to be determined, and that means that they are malleable.
If I look back at events in my life with regrets, wishing that they would never have happened, I do so from the perspective of today. However, something might happen tomorrow, or a year from now that will change the significance of those events or how I look at them.
Working with the Past in Therapy:
Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, noticed this phenomenon in his work with therapy clients and referred to it as “nachtraeglichkeit”: Something that happens now changes what happened in the past. In English this is often referred to as “retroactive determination”.
To Freud this temporal phenomenon by which something that will happen changes what has happened is one of the key curative factors in therapy.
Therapy is not about rehashing old events. It is about encountering something new that you have not yet thought about or felt before. As your present awareness is enlarged or changed, new futures become possible. And with these different futures, the meaning of our past will change.
Changing the Past from the Future:
Existential philosopher, Martin Heidegger, believed that our future is defined by a “for the sake of which”, or a why:
Why do I get up in the morning? Why do I go to this particular job? To do what? To accomplish what?
When pursued to its end, this line of questioning will lead us through a series of “in order to’s” to an ultimate “for the sake of which” which gives us the final meaning to our existence: the reason why we do things..
Hence, I go to work to make a paycheck. I make a paycheck so I can pay my bills. I want to pay my bills so I can eat and have a roof over my head.
Actually I make more money than what I really need to pay my bills. My work is also a status symbol, a testimony to my worth as a person. It is important to me to be a good provider, not just for me but for my wife or for my children. It matters to me that they respect me, that they are proud of me. Without that admiration I might not have anything to give them and I would feel terribly vulnerable. Perhaps my wife might leave me, or my children would think of me as a terrible father. I might not really have the personal qualities that suffice to keep my family happy, so I must provide a different kind of material value. At my core, am I really lovable? Am I really worth staying for? Do I really merit attention and respect?
Now we are getting somewhere!
Beneath all the practical reasons for why I have to do stuff, there is a hidden for-the-sake-of-which to which I am enthralled.
This for-the-sake-of-which colors my entire past. It keeps memories present in my mind of not fitting in and not being good enough during my high school years. It makes recollections relevant of harsh criticism of my personality received in childhood. It provides me with a common denominator to tie together past examples of being left or rejected. "I am not good enough, or interesting enough" is the past which I am living out of from the perspective of this particular future which guides my actions in the present.
If we can change this future, if you can arrive at a new for the-sake-of-which, these elements of the past might no longer be relevant. A different perspective on yourself and on your future, will make new aspects of your past present, and will let others fall into oblivion.
This is the work that gradually unfolds in therapy. Therapy helps you change the past by changing your future, or giving you a new for-the-sake-of-which. This is just yet another meaning to the words, “the past never lasts”.
TIP: For more information about an existential view of time, have a look at my article: "Meaning and Memory. A Heideggerian Analysis of Children's First Memories". In this article I use the philosophy of Martin Heidegger to make sense of our relationship to time.
About me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., psychologist in Houston. I offer therapy to help people overcome traumatic experiences from their past.