In her famous story “The Lottery,” Shirley Jackson gave us a horrifically memorable example of how blindly following traditions can go very wrong. If you haven’t read it, do yourself a favor and check it out.
In his novel “The Darkness That Comes Before,” R. Scott Bakker features a monk-like character who is trained to be aware of the power belief can have over people. This character, Kellhus, takes advantage of people who don’t question the traditions and superstitions that underly their everyday actions. Kellhus and his fellow warrior-monks call unthinking adherence to tradition “the darkness that comes before.”
Consider this a quick lesson in applied humanities. Think about your own life, and consider how often you unquestioningly follow thoughts and beliefs in your daily life. Also, consider how those thoughts and beliefs often have their origins in the minds of other people, like your parents and friends and even coworkers.
Think About Your Thoughts
How often do we really take time to think about our motivations, and whether or not they benefit us? If we don’t make a habit of doing some good-old-fashioned soul searching, aren’t we just slaves to the past? I’m not suggesting you become a nihilist who believes in nothing. Rather, I’m suggesting you take time to think critically about the origins of your beliefs about yourself and the world, and determine whether or not they benefit you and those around you.
Much has been said about “toxic masculinity.” What is this concept but a collection of limiting beliefs—passed down across generations of men—that established arbitrary rules about “correct” male behavior? It’s vital to remember we can break free of this harmful tradition. One way to escape the chains of this narrow male stereotype is to refocus on a more positive set of behaviors one might call “heroic masculinity.” Let’s reframe the conversation to talk about what’s right with men, rather than what’s wrong.
Release Regrets and Savor the Good
Remember, we all have an innate, instinctive bias toward the negative. This is why we often latch onto pessimistic thoughts, especially those about our own pasts. Have you ever tortured yourself about things you did years ago? We all have regrets. This is part of the normal process of living, and it’s healthy to have remorse for our legitimately bad behavior. What isn’t healthy is mercilessly beating ourselves up with regret.
Positive psychology research has shown the value of the practice of savoring. You’ve probably heard we gain many benefits from taking time to be mindful and enjoy the present. In addition, studies have also shown it is beneficial to actively reflect on positive past experiences as a counter to negative fixations on the past. We can make a habit of acknowledging our mistakes, learning from them, and then letting them go rather than continuing to punish ourselves with no end in sight. First make peace with your past. Then, shift to savoring the good things you’ve done.
Remember, don’t be a slave to what has come before. You can be the master of your future if you take charge of how you see your past!
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