“The past is prologue.”

These words, penned by none other than William Shakespeare, consider how fate and destiny join forces to bring about a culminating, opportune, life-changing moment. For Shakespeare, the past is the introduction to our present lives, setting us up for the main event right in front of us.

That’s a lot of pressure, and I’m not sure it’s all that helpful. To be sure, Shakespeare was on to something, but without some reflection, viewing the past as prologue can lead to some dangerous places.  

The past is a complex concept, full of things that happened to us and things we chose, places we found ourselves in and places we went to, people who entered our lives and people we gravitated toward. Our pasts are full of highs and lows, successes and failures, dreams fulfilled and hearts broken.

To live well in the present requires a wise approach to the past. And that’s not easy. The tyranny of urgency is ever present, and we’re prone to not looking back.

But the wise approach to the past begins with one profoundly important question: How have I been shaped?

This is no question of geometry. It’s a question of formation. How have we been formed into the human beings we are today?

It’s a dangerous question to ask because it’s so easy to veer off to some unhealthy postures toward the past. Some have experienced serious trauma in their past and require some good professional help from a counselor or spiritual director to begin the journey to healing. But many have an unhealthy perspective to the past without such prior pain. These unhealthy “postures” to the past can easily become second nature to us, and can hinder our ability to grow and learn.

The first unhealthy posture is to live in the past. We can get stuck there, wallowing in where things went wrong and where opportunities were squandered. That makes it easier to get caught in the self-fulfilling prophecy that life is never going to work out. Some also dwell on how good things were in the past; an overly nostalgic longing for what was.

When we live in the past, we struggle to live in the present. It’s hard to be content with what is when we are fixated on what was.

If clinging to the past is a struggle, I find it helpful to consider: What do I need to let go of in order to move forward?

The second unhealthy posture is to neglect the past. With this perspective, the past isn’t prologue. It’s irrelevant history; something to be discarded and forgotten. It’s a coping mechanism to avoid the pain, embarrassment or shame of our past.

When we forget the past, we’re prone to repeat the same mistakes, fall into the same traps and not grow and mature. The past is a powerful teacher, and we can grow and learn in profound ways from good reflection on what was.  

If neglecting the past is a struggle, I find it helpful to consider: What do I need to reflect upon more on my past in order to approach my future with more wisdom?

So, in a sense, Shakespeare was right. The past is prologue. However, there’s a subtle yet powerful distinction between the past defining us and the past shaping us.Our pasts shape us, but they do not define us. We let the past define us when we live in the past. Ironically, we also let the past define us when we neglect it.

We let the past shape us in healthy ways when we let go of what holds us back and reflect upon what the past can teach us.  All our pasts are full of the best moments, the worst moments and an abundance of everyday moments. We can’t cling to them all, but many can teach us something.

One of the most helpful ways to move beyond living in the past or forgetting it is to create a timeline for your life. In other words, visually represent the most important events of your life on paper. Arrange them in whatever manner seems most appropriate. Be creative or be technical. It’s your choice.

Then, think of the ordinary and everyday elements of your past that come to mind and represent them on your timeline. It could be the piano where you practiced for the recital. The church you attended faithfully every Sunday. It could be pizza night at your family table.

When your timeline is complete, ask yourself:

  • What on this paper is holding me back? What do I need to let go of?
  • What on this paper is an opportunity to learn? What do I need to let it teach me?
  • And finally, what do I need to watch and wait to see what God is going to do with _________?

The past may be prologue. But it’s even more so a teacher. To know where you going, it helps to know where you’ve been.

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