And 2 reasons it’s so common
There’s a question I often get from people I’m working with that breaks my heart.
The question is this:
“How do I get back to who I used to be?”
It’s a question I understand, being as human as they are. But the reason it breaks my heart is, it’s entirely the wrong question.
And once the question you’re asking is the wrong one, no answer is right.
Because you can’t get back.
I get it. This is a question I get from people who are going through the most difficult times, and in such times, the strongest longing is often for a return to how things used to be. I get that.
But I also see how it holds people back and keeps them stuck.
That’s why it’s such a wrong question: it’s totally unhelpful. It’s a dead end that doesn’t go anywhere. The energy and effort it entices you to put into your past is energy and effort that’s not available for moving forward into your future. You don’t have an unlimited supply of energy, after all: you only have so much. You can’t move forward with your face turned backward.
So why do we look back so much?
I can think of two reasons people tend to want to go back.
1. We believe we can go back.
Our longing to go back starts from the simple fact that, somewhere in our heads, we believe it’s possible. And I think this comes from a wrong use of a good life metaphor: the metaphor that life is a path. (Every metaphor, no matter how great, breaks down at some point, and if you use it past that point, you’re liable to break down with it.)
Take life as a path. It makes sense, when you get to a point in the path that you don’t like, the sensible thing to do is go back to the last point that was great.
There’s just one problem: a little thing called time.
With time, there’s no going back. It’s irreversible.
If we’re going to insist on the path or journey metaphor for life, then instead of the kind of roads we know in real life, a better choice would be video games in which everything beyond the left edge of your screen is inaccessible. (Like, you know, Temple Run. And ctually that metaphor works for another reason: in the game, like in life, moving is not an option—you just keep going. But, again, one must not place too much weight on this metaphor, either.)
The point is, there’s no back to go to.
2. We believe things were better back then.
When the present sucks, it’s easy to look back to when “times were good” and “life was easy.” And we reminisce about the past with nostalgia.
But there’s something we are forgetting when we do this, and to bring it to the attention of the people I’m working with, there’s a question I typically have to ask.
Isn’t it from there that you got here?
You see, we often forget that how things “used to be” is part of the problem. How you used to be is what led to how you are now. The present comes from the past.
Why then, if you don’t like the present, would you long for a return to the past that brought you here?
The past you long so nostalgically for contributed to the present you want to get away from.
The present comes from the past. That’s the sort-of-bad news. Yesterday led to today. But it doesn’t end there: there’s good news too.
You can start tomorrow now.
And the first step is to ask a different question:
Where do I go from here?
Now that’s a great question.