The past is past and we can’t change it. After all, it happened! If we remember the past with pain, the pain may appear as grief, regret, self-blame or other negative feelings. Sure, we cherish the pleasant memories, but can we rid ourselves of the painful ones? Can we revise, redeem, even overrule the impact of previous experiences on our lives?
A powerful story from over 2000 years ago gives us a clue. It concerns a crooked tax collector named Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus wanted more than anything to meet the man who healed others of their sorry past histories as adulterers, bigots, and sufferers from disease. Perhaps he wanted this kind of transformation for himself. Zacchaeus climbed a tree to see Jesus passing by in the crowds and was rewarded with a hearty invitation from Jesus to be the Master’s host—a great honor. Joyfully, Zacchaeus vowed then and there to “restore fourfold” anything he’d stolen from others. No more corrupt, defrauding identity for Zacchaeus. The Christly recognition of his worthiness restored his innocent self-image. Zacchaeus felt reborn, set aside his past, and stepped into his future (Luke 19).
I saw this same phenomenon with my father. An alcoholic for twenty years, my dad had managed to hide his habit for a long time. But finally, when the addiction began to rear its ugly head in embarrassing incidents, our family insisted he find the help he needed to overcome this dependency.
At first, my dad resisted any and all suggestions from us. But he did love my mom very much, and often listened to the spiritual insights she had gained through her prayers for him. She, and we three daughters, were certainly praying earnestly. We wrote letters to him, reminding him of the better, finer self we believed him to be. At some point, a more spiritual sense of Dad’s good, God-created identity began to appear.
We may never know exactly how or why my dad finally gave it all up—the alcohol and his dependence on it– but he did. And despite the well-accepted notion that alcohol abuse is permanently harmful, my dad lived a remarkably healthy life into his nineties. Even the assumption that “once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic” had no power over him. In his later years Dad would every now and then have a beer—yet was never tempted to overindulge or go back to his old habits. He was a free man, and we were witnesses to God’s power to revise human history.
My husband, John, taught me by example that Yes! It is possible to redeem the past. But this only happens if we accept a new, spiritualized concept of it—and of ourselves.
John told me that, when his first marriage ended in divorce, he felt deep sorrow, even despair.
He suffered from a sense of failure because things which had started out so happily had ended so sadly. Apparently, facts were facts and nothing could change them. He felt doomed to mourn for a very long time.
But my husband was also a deeply spiritual man, used to going below and beyond the surface appearances reported by our limited human sense of things. He regularly turned to his faith and a keener understanding of God as the source of healing. He had seen the effectiveness of expressing such spiritual, God-like attitudes as humility, gratitude, and forgiveness in other circumstances, so he began to reflect these attitudes in the midst of the divorce and decoupling.
A wonderful thing happened. My husband soon realized that during all those difficult years leading up to the divorce, something else was going on. Deeper than the discord, “Love was always there,” he told me with awe.
John thought of all the love he’d received from his mother and brother during those times. (His dad had passed away.) With pleasure, he remembered his cousins and their happy reunions. He cherished his always close relationship with his daughter—which remained unchanged by the divorce. Most of all, he reached out to God to thank Him for all these good things.
My husband found special inspiration from a revolutionary spiritual thinker, Mary Baker Eddy, who took a radical stand on this issue. Eddy wrote, “The human history needs to be revised, and the material history expunged” and “The awakening from a false sense of life…is as yet imperfect, but for those lucid and enduring lessons of Love which tend to this result, I bless God” (Retrospection and Introspection).
John “awoke” and put this realization of Love’s ever-presence to work. With new appreciation, he began reconnecting with these loved relatives and with old classmates. He made visits. He reactivated his participation in his local Christian Science faith community. Then, he met me! We began to date. Soon we were building a happy, secure marriage which brought us much joy.
What had happened? Did the divorce go away? No. But his sadness did. John changed his view of the past, and his present experience changed along with it. John could finally see that negative feelings and memories had no power to disturb him because love—good—had been present then and was present always. He was not a mourner!
These revisions of personal pasts were not miraculous, though they may have seemed so. A more spiritual sense of each man acted as a cleansing agent, removing the ugly, unhappy traits and restoring each to his native sparkle and shine. They were, then, free to fulfill one poet’s vision: “For all of good the past hath had/ remains to make our own times glad” (John Greenleaf Whittier).
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