A reader writes:
How do I let go of the past? I have been married for a number of years with 3 beautiful children. My husband was a drug addict and has turned over a new leaf. I live in constant fear as to what he will do next. I constantly argue with him and bring up the past. I have a lot of pain and I don't know where to begin my journey on healing. I have a lot of bitterness and fear.
Although the circumstances may be particular to this reader, the theme of not being able to trust and let go of past hurts is a common one. Let us examine the solutions to this specific problem and then look at some of the larger issues as well.
The fear and anxiety felt on the part of this woman concerning her husband's relapsing to his former behavior is real and perhaps based on past patterns. But much can be done to assuage her apprehension -- most importantly, her husband should formulate a multi-phased plan to make sure that his resolve to remain drug-free does not wane.
One part of such a plan would involve a commitment to regular attendance in one of the well-known and respected 12-step programs, where people support each other to stay away from drugs or alcohol. Such programs offer professional supervision, skilled support, and inspirational resources for both the addict and his family.
Another facet of the multi-phased plan would require immersion in spiritual pursuits -- learning, prayer, and meditation.
A third dimension would demand a serious review of one's social milieu. Healthy, supportive, caring friends can act as a powerful bulwark against repeating harmful or negative behavior.
On another level I would suggest that it would be extremely helpful for the wife to avail herself of a good therapist. Her pain, anger, and resentment need to be processed and resolved so that the requisite energy to move forward can be liberated.
Some of the considerations that are likely to come up in therapy involve fundamental life attitudes. When our lives aren't as we would like them to be, we tend to look for answers outside of ourselves. We blame circumstances beyond our control: our bosses, associates, spouses, parents, children, etc. It is usually only after a lot of pain and suffering, both our own and that which we afflict upon those to whom we attribute responsibility, that we come to the realization that the ultimate solution must come from inside of ourselves.
Hanging on to anger and resentment assumes that we have control over the behavior of another person. Consequently, we believe, quite mistakenly, that if we refuse to forgive and forget that we thereby punish the perpetrator. Our illusion presumes that the offender will suffer and hence never repeat the offense.
While this conclusion may be common, it is incorrect for the following reasons:
- In reality, we have no control over the behavior of another person. Moreover, one can be fairly certain that constantly reminding others of their shortcomings will be counter-productive. Repeated admonitions of others' indiscretions are guaranteed to motivate them not to change. Quite the contrary, it will more than likely reinforce their feelings of inferiority and inadequacy which prompted their addictive behavior in the first place. A return to consumptive behavior would be a more likely consequence of constantly rubbing their face in it.
On the other hand, if we can find it within ourselves to adopt a positive mode, it can be significant in affecting an enduring turnabout. "Look at a person as they are and that is all they will be. Look at them as what they can be and that is what they will indeed become."
From a faith prospective, no challenge in life is arbitrary or capricious. My life and the circumstances by which I am confronted are uniquely relevant to me and provide an invitation for me to grow on a personal level. As someone once said, we cannot control the images that appear on the canvas of our lives daily, but we are the ones who determine the colors that we will apply to the canvas -- bright, positive, and life affirming ones, or colors that are dark and grim, which dishearten and drag us down.
We make those choices and we live by those choices. Certainly, it is hard work to apply bright colors to challenging images, but in the end, we ourselves are the greatest beneficiaries. We will have reached deep into our very core and accessed the better part of ourselves. Rather than wallow in self-pity, we will have become bigger and better people. To travel this positive road requires conscious and deliberate effort. Rest assured that we are not going to wake up one fine day and have an automatic change of heart. We have to actively choose that change of heart. We must stop in our tracks the moment we feel anger and resentment welling up inside us and alter the words that come out of our mouths.
Self-talk is absolutely critical to the success of this endeavor. We are constrained to keep telling ourselves over and over again that we must "let go" and forgive. Self-exhortations rehearsed regularly will heal us. In addition, we need to be vigilant for positive and compensating behaviors on our spouses' part. We need to notice and acknowledge these gestures. Often these are made as conciliatory, and represent a sincere loving effort to make up for time lost. These gestures may take the form of wanting to spend more time with us, helping out with house chores, making inquiries into our well being, attempts to get closer and more intimate. Whatever form they take, these overtures are indications of regret for the past.
Implied here is also the idea that however hurtful the past behavior may have been, it was not malicious or calculated on their part. We need to be open and to give them a fair chance. Negative thoughts need to be replaced by positive thoughts. The rule is that "no two things can occupy the mind at once." If we actively choose to travel an upbeat and constructive road invoking a positive attitude, we will ignite a flame that will banish the darkness from our hearts and minds. We will have chosen to move forward.
We serve as models and paragons for our children. They watch us carefully as we move through our daily trials and tribulations. They are registering our every response. We are their textbooks. What better legacy can we leave our children than one of coping? A legacy that says: yes, life can be disappointing at times but we get up, brush ourselves off and move on with strength and determination.
Everyday is precious and life passes all too quickly. We must not allow yesterday to contaminate today. How sad it would be for us to miss today's beautiful sunshine, because we refuse to let go of yesterday's overcast skies. In Hebrew there is a saying, "Do not prolong the suffering beyond the time of pain."
The final point is especially relevant for this season, the High Holy days when we will stand in judgment and ask the Almighty to forgiveness us for past transgressions. And as a vote of confidence in our ability to change, we ask Him to grace us with yet another year of life. Can we ask forgiveness for ourselves and at the same time withhold forgiveness from others? Especially at this time of the year, a most powerful appeal would be:
"Almighty God, we are all mere humans, finite, limited, subject to error and weakness. As one of your children you have watched me struggle to overcome the formidable barrier of resistance to letting go, forgiving and forgetting. In the merit of my effort, Benevolent Father In Heaven, I ask you to hold my hand and extend your compassion to assist me in my arduous journey. Please inscribe us all in the Book of Life."
Good Luck. And have a happy and fulfilling New Year.