Whenever I hear about the importance of letting go of the past, I think about a conversation I had with my mother more than thirty years ago. She emigrated to the United States from Poland when she was six years old, just before the rise of Hitler. Her memories of Poland and the indignities she suffered as a child because she was Jewish, would resurface whenever there was a discussion about Germany, Poland, the Nazis, antisemitism or Volkswagens. Whatever she experienced as a child was still vivid sixty-five years later, and worse, the memories repeatedly pulled her back to the past.

Leaving the Baggage Behind

I didn’t understand the full impact of her past experiences until I visited the Buchenwald concentration camp and stood on the same ground on which many of my mother’s family died. As I looked out to where indescribable atrocities were committed, I wondered how anyone involved in the events that occurred there could leave that baggage behind—whether they were a holocaust survivor or the child of an SS officer. But we don’t need to look for extraordinary events to understand how difficult it is for many people to leave the past behind. Everyday occurrences, while not necessarily as dramatic, create similar dilemmas. For example, how does a woman whose husband left her when she became ill, let go of intense feelings of abandonment? How does a mother who held her infant as she died forget the dreams she had for her child and herself?

Answers regarding how to let go of the past often refer to what the person is doing wrong that prevents them from living in the present, such as believing in false identities, not accepting impermanence, elevating “self” rather than “no-self,” just to mention a few. They are all explanations of why the past exerts control—illogical thinking. But few contain suggestions for how to release the grip, other than to think more rationally.

Yet it is the how of living—those messy, transient,  undisciplined things—that transform ageless concepts into something more useful than repeatable quotes.

How, Not What

When I’ve attended workshops and asked how to implement the wisdom the speaker was espousing, I often felt as if I asked someone how to drive to New York from San Francisco and told “Go east.” Accurate, yes, but not very helpful. A similar philosophy became popular a few years ago when a running shoe company created the advertising slogan “Just do it.” The implication was that there were some things in life that should just be done, not analyzed. The idea of focusing on the what and assuming the how is self-evident creates problems whether it comes from a basketball player—who having practiced thousands hours—describes the arc of a three-point shot; a Buddhist monk—who having spent his life in monastic study—lays out the wisdom of the universe, or my shakuhachi (Japanese bamboo flute) teacher—who having studied and played the instrument for sixty years—instructs me to see music through my “third eye.” As someone who is too short to play basketball, isn’t enlightened, and began studying the shakuhachi too late in life to ever know it intimately, I need more than what suggestions. “Go east” doesn’t work when I’m trying to understand something I’ve never done or have had limited experience doing.

The notion that learning is more meaningful when one struggles to obtain knowledge never proved fruitful when I worked with children who had learning differences, nor with adults as they struggled to make sense of their lives as they approached death. The “Eureka!” experience one has by stumbling upon knowledge is often outweighed by the frustration and guilt experienced along the way when success appears elusive. And learning research bears out this point: success leads to more success in learning and failure only leads to more failure. Implementing great ideas, such as living in the present, takes more effort than just articulating the words—regardless how much we accept them or idealize those who espouse them.

Severity

I’ve come to believe that the degree to which someone is able to move into the present partially depends upon the severity of a past loss or injustice. And the more severe, the more important are how suggestions. For example, it’s probably easier to leave behind an intensive, but short love relationship, than it is the death of a spouse one had a symbiotic relationship with. Rejection from a friend may be easier to get over than the abandonment one feels when a livelong partner leaves for someone much younger.

Knowing that one should relinquish the pain of what no longer exists doesn’t necessarily provide the tools for understanding how to do it. And when people believe it should, the resulting guilt just adds to the past’s baggage. What people should be able to do and what they may be capable of, may have as much a gap between them as Tea Party stalwarts and progressives in the United States. So what can we do to not allow, or reduce the influence of our past on our present? It involves understanding why unskillful acts occur. And to do that, means accepting the validity of value systems that may be significantly different than our own.

Understand If You Can’t Forgive

With some of my hospice patients, the psychological pain many experienced earlier in their lives overwhelmed their consciousness at the end of it. Tragically, instead of trying to make sense of their lives, thanking loved ones, asking for forgiveness, and allowing themselves to be forgiven, they focused on something in their past that was very painful. For one month a patient told me the same story every time I visited her. She would go into detail about how her fellow teachers rebuffed her and the immense pain it caused. Even knowing she had little time left, she dwelled on an injustice she experienced more than fifty years ago. For her, the pain of rejection began to diminish when she understood that often unskillful acts are more about the needs of the “perpetrator” than the deeds of the “victim.” She never was able to forgive her colleagues, nor forget the pain they caused. They did something that was so antithetical to her own values, that it went beyond cruelty. Her death was made easier when she began to understand that their hurtful behaviors were more a reflection of their needs than anything she did.

“Understanding” may not have the redemptive quality of “forgiving,” or as powerful in releasing past demons. But it does enable a person to view an unskillful act directed against them within the context of the other person’s value system. In 1965 when I was in Montgomery, Alabama, I viewed the behaviors of the mounted police within my own value system-liberal, committed to civil rights, belief in equality, etc. What I experienced shaped my attitude toward southerners for many years. It was easy for me to be critical of what they were doing, based on how I thought I would behave in their circumstances. Despite meeting many southerners years later who espoused the same values as I did, my history colored my perception of what I thought motivated their words and actions—ones I would have found positive coming from someone not from the South.

Forty-years later I had a hospice patient whose great, great,  grandparents owned slaves, believed in the righteousness of the confederacy, and he, like everyone else in his family, had a very dismal view of anyone like me. He shared his history with me as I sat with him near the end of his life. It was then that I realized if I had been born in the 1930’s in Alabama and inculcated with the values of that society, I could have become as brutal as the mounted policemen who tried to knock my head off, because they felt it was the righteous thing to do.

Everyone embodies the history of their experiences and whatever changes occur in our present lives happens within that context. The more devastating the loss we have suffered or the injustice, the more likely there will be a problem moving on. That includes our ability to let go and how we choose to accomplish that. Being told what we should be able to do may not be that helpful. Learning how to do it is.

So the next time you try to let go of a past traumatic event and can’t, don’t feel guilty. Don’t repeat quotes to yourself of what you should be thinking. Rather, try to understand why someone did or said something you would never do. A very young, but wise monk once said to me, “We do the best we can given the circumstances of our lives.” And I think it’s understanding the circumstances of unskillful behaviors that puts us on a road to New York rather than just heading east.

24 Responses

  1. iphigenia

    Hi Stan,
    This was so helpful for me, I have suffered a great deal of abuse and rejection in my life and have tried forgiveness. Shifting to understanding is much more helpful – will the pain eventually go away or will it just stop the resentment and blaming others? This is just what I needed to move on. Thanks

    Reply
    • Stan Goldberg

      Thanks for the kind words Iphigenia,

      I wish understanding could always lead to less pain, but I’ve found that the equation is rarely that simple. I think the greater the initial suffering, the harder it is to let go of the pain–even if we understand the reasons why it occurred. I think understanding allows us to move our lives forward, even with the pain.

      Take Care,
      Stan

      Reply
  2. sheriperl

    I really liked your article Stan. I have had reason to work with forgiveness in a very profound way regarding events surrounding my son’s death in 2008. I don’t need to go into specifics. I just want to say that my ability to maybe not forgive totally, but to lighten up majorly, has to do with something you mentioned; realizing that people just become who they are and that it isn’t about me. It affects me, but it doesn’t reflect on me. Big difference.

    I also realized that the weight of the anger and bitterness was a weight around my heart that pulled me down. Then I read this quote that said that hatred was a poison that you eat, hoping the other guy will get sick.

    For me, it’s important not to interact with these people too often (they are family) and to make the effort to refrain from thinking about the storyline of what went down. But forgiveness is really a gift to yourself because it frees you from the incessant brow beating you take, every time you go over the injustice in your mind! It can keep you up at night and in that way, you are still imprisoned.

    Reply
    • Stan Goldberg

      Hi Sheripel,

      Thanks you for your kind words. I came to learn that the loss of a child is probably one of the the most difficult losses to accept. I saw it as a bedside volunteer at a children’s hospice. When a friend of mine’s adult son was killed, years after his death she was asked if she was still grieving. Her response was “yes, I always will, but in a different way than I did when he died.” There was no way she could forgive the people who killed her son, but she began to understand what was behind it.

      Your words are very wise and come from a painful journey and reflection rather than much of what is written as advice. Your idea that the anger we have towards others may hurt us more than the people we are angry with, is also reflected in my favorite Tibetan saying: You can throw hot coals at your enemies, but you’ll burn your own hands doing it.

      Take Care,
      Stan

      Reply
  3. Kate Harmon

    Thank you so much for this insightful article-it was an apropos reminder of my parents leaving Poland and Austria and my hospice journey as an advocate and proponent for the last thirty years. Learning to let go has been a lifelong process of letting go and bringing it all back-Thank you for taking the guilt out of that process. Blessings, Kate

    Reply
    • Stan Goldberg

      Thank you for your kind words Kate. My parents also were from Poland. My father came here when he was 13, my mother when she was 6, both before Hitler invaded Poland. Although neither experienced the holocaust directly, they carried the feeling of being “the other” their entire lives.

      When I visited Buchenwald were some of their relatives died, I began to understand how hard it is to let go of the past. And all of the quotes about what one should do made as much sense as looking at a 1930’s map of a modern city. That will be the theme of my next book which is a novel.

      Take Car,
      Stan

      Reply
  4. Betsy Craig

    My brother is dying of COPD and will not accept it. He’s lost his ability to walk. He’s raging because of the steroids he’s on to keep his airways open. How do we get him from believing he’s going to get better to accepting that he isn’t. He throws his partner out of the house on a daily basis, yelling and screaming. He was told by his Pulmonary doctor the other day that he is in the end stage of COPD and he just would not accept it. He’s so mean and angry that no one wants to be around him. Then we go through guilt because we want to help him in his last days, weeks, months…but again he’s impossible to reason with or talk to. He just cusses you out if you don’t go along with the charade that he’s going to get better.

    Reply
    • Stan Goldberg

      Hi Betsy,

      You are in a very hard place: knowing what will help, but having your brother unwilling to accept your advice. It’s not uncommon, and may be the most painful thing a caregiver can experience. It’s been my experience that someone who is afraid of dying will have difficultly accepting a terminal status. And trying to convince him that he is dying may be fruitless.

      It’s hard for many people to understand that the anger they are the recipient of is not about them. You become collateral damage for someone who may not be able to share with you what he is feeling. Instead of running away from him, accept his delusions.Being supportive not only means providing compassion, but also the willingness to participate in something that may give him relief or peace. Not everyone can move into the sharp points of dying. My suggestion is to provide him what he needs right now–even if that means propping up a delusion. I think you’ll find a change of attitude when he looks at you as an ally rather than someone who doesn’t accept what he’s feeling.

      I’ve witnessed people who vehemently denied they were dying eventually come to the realization that they were. Others, never do. But it should always be their choice. You can’t force someone who is close to dying to accept their death. And even if you can, the price that is paid may be too great.

      Take Care,
      Stan

      Reply
    • Stan Goldberg

      Hi Eileen,

      Thanks for the compliment. Wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t have to wait until we were old to gain it?

      Take Care,
      Stan

      Reply
  5. Pat Sweeney

    I’m glad to see someone who feels as I do as it helps to come to some kind of insight for others, being a healthcare worker with Alzhiemer sufferers. For many years, friends would tell me to just move on in any way they could or using those exact words. Thanks

    Reply
  6. Barbara Ellis

    Thanks Stan. It took many years to step out of the trap of a difficult childhood by realizing that my father was mentally ill–never diagnosed or treated (that didn’t happen much some 50 plus years ago). But that realization as an adult set me free.

    Reply
  7. Ronee Henson

    Another excellent article, Stan!
    As I got older I learned to understand that even when I was not in agreement with someone elses thought process or philosophy, they had the absolute right to have them. This didn’t make my own wrong, or them right.So I try to get into their mindset and figure them out.It is amazing what great non-confrontational dialogues that frequently started, even with Hospice patients.
    With my own Dad that was very difficult, but we managed to become friends on his deathbed, because we finally were able to talk together. We both were able to let go of the sad past we had shared.
    Thank you for your thoughtful words.
    Ronee

    Reply
  8. Pat

    I was with you until the end. How do we know that it was ‘the best we can’? For some reason, that often (but not always) sounds more like an excuse. I especially hear those words in health care.

    Reply
    • Stan Goldberg

      Hi Pat,

      Maybe I’m getting softer in my old age, but I’ve come to believe that most people (not all) really are constrained in what they can and cannot do based upon the circumstances of their lives.

      I think we act through our history, with all of its joys and tragedies. I don’t think “understanding” why someone is doing something I would find unacceptable–given my set of values–is excusing them (e.g, justifying it), but rather acknowledging that our values are different. To do otherwise would place me in the camp of right-wing fundamentalists who adamently maintain they have the right set of ethical values–and I don’t. It’s time for a lunch, isn’t it?

      Take Care,
      Stan

      Reply
  9. Damiano Iocovozzi

    Dear Stan, A warm, insightful article! You are the Mensch your mom wanted you to be: caring, compassionate & connected to your human family. How I wish we could clone people like you. Your, Damiano

    Reply
  10. Mary Hamilton

    Wow, Stan, “. . .easier when she began to understand that their hurtful behaviors were more a reflection of their needs than anything she did.” really hit home with me! What powerful words. I love this story! I hope many in pain emotionally will read and linger on every word! Thank you for your heart-felt work!

    Reply
  11. Katharine Dupre

    Very good insightful article. Thanks! I needed that especially today.

    Hope all is well with you.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Sorry for adding Captcha, but the volume of spam requires it *

Subscribe to get updates and receive your ebook -
Family Conflicts During Health Crises: 13 Best Strategies To Prevent Them