How did this happen? I found myself asking, as I stared down at the car in front of me. I was standing in a parking lot next to the clothing store I had just visited. Keys in one hand and shopping bag in the other, I gazed at the familiar blue hatchback I had driven for years. Only it wasn’t my car. It wasn’t even the same color as the car I currently owned. Rather it matched the vehicle I had driven five years before, which we had turned in to the dealership as a trade-in for the auto I have now.
Somehow, as I had exited the store, thoughts adrift, my brain had caught sight of my “then” car and steered me toward it, rather than my “now” car. As if the intervening chunk of time, jam-packed years of life—in which my son was born, incidentally—had never happened. Imagine how you might feel having signed a check with your maiden name after many anniversaries, or inputting the address prior to where you are living now on a form. Leaving off your youngest kid’s name when asked to enumerate all your children. Dating an outgoing letter several years back.
Yeah, you get it. I was disturbed to say the least, and knew this anomaly wouldn’t leave me alone until I had thought it through. And all I can say, after careful consideration, is this: the pull of the past is very strong. And it is constantly drawing us into its depths, like an invisible undertow. This current is so strong and constant that when we let our guard down in an absent-minded moment, we can find ourselves in an errant, misguided place. A place we never intended to go.
Landing in the wrong parking spot seems innocuous enough, but what if our mental train stops at a darker station? What if our default destination teems with pain, or even trauma? Who has the energy—much less ability—to police one’s own thoughts all the time? How would you even begin to construct a safe enclosure for your mind to inhabit?
As with many of the overwhelming, impossible issues life throws at me, I believe that my approach, (if not exhaustive answer) to the “invasive past” problem would be: start small.
If we recognize that things from behind us sometimes rise up in front of us, then perhaps we can intentionally pick something from the past to look at for a while. Some positive little incident or detail that may have enough power to influence us for good.
The apostle Paul, onetime persecutor of Christians who carried a mountain of pain and regret on his back, put it this way:
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. (Phil 4:8 NIV).
Notice Paul doesn’t suggest you think of a miracle or some other momentous event. Whatever treasure you can find, however tiny, will serve. As long as there’s a streak of gold in it, you can use the memory you just mined from the mountain on your back to bolster your spirits.
Today the small memory that presents itself to me comes from years ago when I was leading a Bible study for Yale students that met weekly in the evening. My grandparents were still alive at that time but no longer able to function independently. I made frequent trips from my home in Connecticut to Long Island to take Grandma and Grandpa to the doctor, go grocery shopping, fill prescriptions and prepare meals. The days when I played both the caretaker and small group leader proved exhausting.
On one such “double dip” day, I found myself overwhelmed in the morning as I contemplated the marathon in front of me. It was then I remembered the story of Moses standing on a hill, staff in hand, as the Israelites fought their enemy below him (Exodus 17:8-16). As long as he held up his staff, the Israelites prevailed, but when his hands dropped in fatigue, they faltered. So two companions stood on Moses’s left and right, supporting his arms, so that both he and his army could persevere until the battle was won.
“God, could you hold up my arms today?” I prayed, feeling quite unequal to my own battle.
Several hours, miles, and tasks later, we were nearing the end of our Bible study when participants were invited to share their needs and concerns so the group could pray for them. I don’t remember what I said, but I must have conveyed my weariness by my very demeanor, if not my words. I do remember this: as the group members drew in close around me to begin praying, one young man asked them to pause. “Today in class we learned how African students honor their teachers by holding up their arms. Rebecca, may we hold up your arms as we pray for you tonight?”
I’m not even kidding.
Thankfully, I did not collapse in tears but was able to let people prop up my arms and pray. Even as I write about the incident now, I am reminded afresh that however tired or discouraged I may be, however pulled in a thousand directions, God will always reach me if I let him. And I let him by speaking with him in private, bothering to direct what’s inside my heart towards him through prayer. I also let him by spending time reading the letters and lore of those in the Bible who have stood where I’m standing, be they a Moses or a Paul. Finally, I let him by showing up where people who love and support me have a chance to do just that. More often than not they are the ones God uses to minister to me in my distress.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t do the big things when the past threatens to pull us under, like seek professional help. What I am saying is that the past cuts both ways. It can hurt us but it can also help us, if we choose to remember the noble, pure, and lovely. To mentally rehearse the true, right, and worthy things that have happened to us, even when we really don’t feel like it. Like most things worth having, it takes an effort to cull the gems from the current of our past. Considering all the fruitless ways we fritter away our emotional energy, why not devote some of it to an endeavor we know will pay off?
What small, good thing can you call to mind today? May it support you as you carry your burdens and fight your battles. May it lift you up and take you where you want to go.