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You can’t go back...
... to how things used to be. And that’s a good thing.
One of the commonest statements I’ve heard in my years working in healthcare, and especially mental healthcare, is, “I just want things to go back to normal.” I heard it from patients as well as from their loved ones. And I soon started to notice that it was something that came up just in life generally, after people had been through major upheavals.
I just want to everything to be okay again.
I used to respond to that by reassuring the speaker it was possible, that we’d figure it together, somehow. And not just because I understood where they were coming from, but because I genuinely believed it.
I don’t anymore. And that’s a good thing.
You see, I started paying attention (that word again!) to the patients who were making real progress and thinking through what was different about them. And there’s a few things I noticed, some internal, some external. The biggest external difference was that those who made progress were those who had support. Who had people in their corner, rooting for them, cheering them on. You’d think that’s a basic thing, but you’d be shocked how many people don’t recognise that, even when it’s there.
But for that external support to have the biggest impact possible, it has to connect with something internal — with the right perspective.
And that perspective is forward-looking.
People who really make progress, I’ve come to learn, are looking, not for a way back, but a way forward. They aren’t focused on how things used to be. They are focused on how things can be now. And they are paying attention, not to what’s gone that they can’t get back (which, let’s be frank, is draining), but to what’s available they can create something new with.
They’re living creatively.
Because, you see, there’s really no way back. Time goes in only one direction, after all. And past is already past. But of course we get that, so why is it so difficult to adjust when reality hits different?
I think it’s because we romanticise the past.
There’s a Bible verse I often think about:
Say not, “Why were the former days better than these?” For it is not from wisdom that you ask this. (Ecclesiastes 7:10, ESV)
That second line is just lowkey side-eye, I know. But seriously, there’s wisdom in the reminder that romanticising the past isn’t wise. The past often looks better than now, but that’s partly because it’s past. It’s happened, we can look at it with perspective and make sense of it. But the present, which is happening even as we speak, can sometimes feel more random and less connected. That’s why everyone thinks the music and cinema of their childhood was better (looking at you, Scorsese!). Except that’s precisely what those before them believed, and those before that.
And that’s just regular life. Imagine how much more tempting it is to romanticise the past when we’ve been through hard times. It’s easy to think back to when times were “simpler,” when life was “less stressful.”
Except, often, those “simpler” times are precisely how we got here. You have to wonder: was it really as good as we recall? And even if it was, that’s the thing - it was. And it’s gone now. You can’t go back to it.
But you can move forward.
You can always move forward.
Your life is a work of art on the canvas of reality, and with every choice, you make a new stroke.
What will you create?
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