We’ve all heard it, “You can’t change your past. You can only change your future.” And at a very base level, that’s true. But, lately, I’ve been thinking about this. We have our lives laid out in a linear fashion, ahead and behind us. Today, yesterday, last month, last year, the ’90’s….And it lives in our minds like a running story of our lives. But, the truth is, the past doesn’t exist. The only place the past exists is in our heads.
For example, I was bullied as a child. After extensive therapy, I got over it, and am a much stronger person because of it. I roll my eyes at the anti-bullying propaganda of recent decades. If we are so conditioned that everyone should be nice to us all the time, then we will crumble when life hands us bullshit. Bullying sucks, but it makes stronger people.
But, in the early 1990’s, we didn’t have this awareness. Bullies were cartoonish villains, in the form of burly ten year-old boys that did things like put people’s heads in toilets, steal bikes, or shake ‘nerds’ (another cartoon I didn’t understand) upside down for their lunch money. No one in my school would do such things. For one, my private school that wasn’t certified to serve food, so we didn’t even use lunch money. It was also down a fast-moving, rural highway, so no one could ride their bikes. As far as I was concerned, as long as no one put anyone’s head in a toilet, bullies didn’t apply to me. So I would have never put the word “bully” to what I was experiencing.
Still, through my teen years, I carried this image of my elementary school cafeteria and the girl that smashed her cookie into crumbles. She then set it in front of me and said, “This is for you, because you’re crummy.” Pretty witty for an eight year old. I have to hand it to her.
As a young adult, I returned to visit that school. It had closed down by then, and I walked the silent property. Somehow, I expected everyone to be still there, frozen in time. But, the schoolyard had grown into weeds, and the classrooms desolate, with only a few remaining empty desks stashed in corners, faded pencil graffiti on the sides. The eating area was long gone. Sometime after I left, the tables had been replaced. The only cafeteria remnants were old tables where I had never sat. I had moved on, and so had everyone else. Even Cookie Crumble Girl had an eight year old of her own by then. Or so I had heard.
And in that schoolyard, I had a realization. The past doesn’t exist. It only existed in my memory. Those people weren’t there. They had their own lives, and had long forgotten about me. Or, even if they hadn’t, what did it matter? The only place any of this existed, was in my head. Then, I realized, if the past were only in my head, and I am in control of my own mind, then I could control the past. I could decide that those things never happened.
Now, I realize I am on dangerous ground here. There is a fine linbetween what I am talking about, and denial, or delusion. What I am talking about, is deciding that the painful or sad events of your life, those memories that keep us bound, can’t control you. You control them. I can’t pretend Cookie Crumble Girl didn’t exist. But, I can decide that the incident where Cookie Crumble Girl forgot to send me a birthday party invitation didn’t happen. I can’t pretend that I went, because that’s delusional. But, what does it hurt me to completely erase the incident from my mind? And how does that do me any harm?
My mind is my own. I, and I alone, get to decide what is in it. I decide what I keep and what I throw away. So, logically, why would I keep around things that hurt me, or bring me sadness, insecurity, fear, or anything else that I wouldn’t want. It’s just like if someone wrote you an awful letter, describing in vivid detail that you are a horrible, awful, person. Once you got over the immediate, anger, shock, and hurt, would you keep that letter around for years? Of course not! You would throw that sucker out. You may even do something dramatic, like burn it. So why can’t we do the same thing with our mind? What we want, stays. What we don’t, goes. And, if our past is only in our minds, then…we can thereby change our past.
And, then let’s take it a step further. So, if the past is in my mind, and I am controlling my mind. I can change it. I can decide that I was more popular than I was. I can’t invent things. But, I can, for my own sake, rewrite it to where it makes me feel those years are full of happy memories. And what does it matter if I want to believe that?
Now, can you bear with me one last step? I started this article talking about how we can’t change our past, we can only change our futures. But et’s talk about the future. If our future is informed by our past, then wouldn’t changing our past change our future? I am reminding of the movie Back to the Future.
In the beginning, we see the character Marty McFly belongs to a fairly unsuccessful, squirelly, nerdy family. So, during the course of the movie, Marty time travels back to his parents’ high school. He finds his father is tormented by a bully named Biff. Concerned, Marty helps his father stand up to Biff. This gives the father a confidence he never had. So, at the end of the movie, Marty returns to the present day, and finds that that one act has changed the course of his family life. His father is now a successful businessman, and they live in a big, beautiful home, with a driveway full of expensive car. Dimwitted Biff, now works as their servant, humbly washing their cars.
So, if I mentally change my past, wouldn’t that change how I respond to my present and thereby informing my future? Just like Marty’s father, whose confidence 25 years ago changed his whole life–why do I need a time machine to begin responding to my life in the way that I want? If changing my perspective on my past, can change my present, then I can change my future.
It’s an interesting thing to think about. Yes, our past informs who we are but it doesn’t have to. Your past only exists in your mind. And, in your mind, you can control it.