Alfred Sisley: La Croix Blanche at Saint Mammes

The past does not exist, but it is important

Would you like to travel in time, like in Back to the Future? With a DeLorean? In our imagination we can go back or forward in time, but in reality that is not possible. I will take it one step further: the past does not exist. You may find it a strange statement, that the past does not exist. We can look back to the past, in stories, photos, films, memories, books, can’t we? What I mean is that we cannot experience the past again. It is behind us and it is gone. We can no longer directly experience the past. Even when someone has a re-experience, and it feels like he or she is back in the moment of the past, he or she is still not really there. The past consists of images and words, connected to emotions and physical sensations, which we now create. Sometimes we do that consciously, then ‘we remember’. Sometimes we do that automatically and unconsciously and ‘a memory hits us’.

The past is important. Our lives can get better when we can reflect on what we have experienced before. First of all, it can give us a pleasant feeling to remember a sweet memory. From memories in which we have made mistakes, we can learn how to prevent errors in the future. A third important function of looking back is that we can understand why we react in the present in a way that does not work well. Especially in our youth, when we are still dependent on others, we sometimes learn to react in ways, that help us to survive at that moment, but that makes it difficult for us later on. It is precisely the ways of reacting that we learn at a young age, that we continue to use in adulthood. Even if that behavior is counterproductive. We feel safer through those old ways of reacting.

It is sometimes claimed that ACT therapists do not work with the past, because only the here-and-now counts. It is true that the here-and-now is very important, if you work with ACT. After all, life takes place here-and-now and only in the here-and-now you can make changes to what you do and don’t do. But what we do is related to our learning history. We do what we do because we have learned to do so. And although we cannot go back to the past, and are never able to form a completely accurate image from the past, it can help to look at the circumstances in which we grew up, to understand why we do what we do. By looking at the past we can see that today’s behavior had an important survival function, in the past. And we can better understand why we continue with that behavior, even if it does not help us now. This helps us to see ourselves with more compassion and acceptance. And that helps to learn to react in a different, more helpful way.

There are also risks involved with the past. We can have the conviction that everything used to be better, which creates and sustains a longing for the past. We are no longer fully engaged in life now, if we continue to long for the past. And we can have the conviction that we have made an irrevocable mistake that cannot be restored, but must be restored before we can continue our lives. That also means that we are no longer fully involved in our lives at the moment. No matter how big a mistake we made, we cannot go back. We can only move forward. Looking back can have a fourth life-improving function and that is when we look back to understand what is important in our lives. There are no absolute errors, only mistakes measured by our goals and intentions. Mistakes tell us, therefore, what our goals and intentions are. And those goals and intentions remain important, even if we have made mistakes. And we can now take steps to do what is important. Not because we have to atone, but because it matters.