Why Holding on to the Past May Be Bad for You

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Many of us love to keep old memorabilias that reminds us of our past. We keep photos, gifts, old greeting/birthday cards, watch old movies and listen to old songs. It is okay if there are fond memories but if the past elicit feelings of regret and sadness due to wrong choices, passing away of a loved one, etc, it becomes potentially hazardous- it does not allow us to move on in life.

How often do we find ourselves going through old high school yearbooks, old photos, gifts, cards, etc?  We look at a card send by a person who was once our friend who said that “friends forever and ever” and messages writen by our ex-es that are no longer relevant today. In our minds, we think and replay the past in our mind, thinking and regreting on what the “could-have-beens” had we made different choices, took a different route or say different things. Then perhaps we will still be with someone or would be successful, made it through college, etc, etc …. the list is endless.

view of Sri Lanka from the plane during my visit there in 2006

view of Sri Lanka from the plane during my visit there in 2006. It looks so peaceful from up there- and yet, war is tearing the country apart

Many of us love to hold on to the past. If you want to know how much you like to hold on to, all you need to do is to look around you- do you surround yourself with lots of stuff that brings back old memories that you cannot bear to throw away?

If we hold on to those stuff, it will hold us back in life. We cannot get ahead because consciously or subsciously, we are still very much stuck in the past. And if we are stuck, our minds are not capable of planning, of accepting change and most importantly…. of really living.

Whatever decisions we made, it will be heavily influenced by past experiences. And a lot of time, we made wrong judgements because we get clouded by past perceptions, and feelings. We crave to re-experience and re-live those great moments that are long gone- sometimes, our present circumstances may be difficult, or boring…. so we wanted desperately to forget and go back to the past.

Let me illustrate what I mean by sharing my mom’s experience and the lesson that it taught me:

At one time, my mom took an interest in the oldies- songs by Tom Jones, Julio Iglesias, etc and music such as cha cha that she bought lots of cassettes from the pasar malam (night market). She loved playing them on the radio and listening to them- at the same time reminiscing on old times.

You see, my mom really enjoyed her youth- she went to lots of parties and dances, had her share of boyfriends for almost a decade. Then one day she got tired of it all- she said that the whole party going scene made her feel very empty inside. One of her ex-boyfriends was a businessman and in the 60s, they had to conduct lots of business by having ‘social escorts’ to accompany their clients. Her ex will send his best friend to pick up my mom and accompany her.

My mom will have to watch from across another table while her ex boyfriend to entertain clients (with a social escort with him) and he will come to her after he finished discussing business. Still, from what she had shared with me, I gathered that the guy really loved my mom very much.

But my mom got sick of that kind of life and when she was introduced to my dad, she immediately felt a refreshing change- my dad was everything that her previous boyfriends were not.

He was this nice decent guy who rode a humble scooter and took her out to dinner and movies. He came and visited her literally everyday. It was so different, and my mom felt secured and more grounded. So they married the following year.

However, after a few years, the difference in their personality became obvious- my dad was an old fashioned typical Chinaman while my mom was a modern English educated woman. Still, after marriage, mom had made the conscious decision to leave her partying life behind and settle to raise us up the best of her capabilities.

As mentioned earlier, she had developed an interest to listen back to old nostalagic songs. To be honest, I was never a fan of oldies except for a few songs like “Moonriver” and “Love Story”. That period, I think her quarrels with my dad got worse.

Then one day, I stop hearing those old tunes and songs. When going for shopping, I asked if mom wanted to buy some cassettes or CDs. Mom told me no as she does not want to be reminded of the past and therefore she made the decision to stop listening to those songs.

After that, I see the demeanor changes- she grew more contended and accepted the life she had chosen- she always said that it is all worth it because she had both my brother and me as her children.  Few years later, we lost my dad. Then within that 5 years, she had lost 3 very close sisters (the phone bill used to go up to over a hundred because she always chat with them on the phone) and she learned to move on from grieving. She now invests in her friendships and I can say her friends are great people whom I get along well with.  She moved on in life.

But I know one of her friend who could not let go of the past- she kept everything that reminds her of her past and she could not accept the fact that she had grown old. She had made choices in life that she was not happy about- so she numbed herself by spending her time playing mahjong and watching the Astro Chinese movies and drama series.

Another person I knew tragically lost many of her family members to illness and now lived alone- she surrounds herself with photos of her family members. When I talked to her, I always sensed loneliness and that she carried a heavy baggage that overwhelms her.

I am not saying that we have to ‘throw’ away old memories. But we cannot dwell too much into it, especially if we cannot undo the past. Somehow, if we keep old memoralia within clear view, we will constantly be reminded and we will not be able to let go. Not only that, when present life gets tough, we will tend to feel vulnerable, exposed, defenceless and will be unable to cope because emotionally, we are too weighed down by past baggage to cope.

We will think back of the past and how happy we have been, and run into a downward spiral that may easily go out of control. For instance, let’s say we are constantly being ‘bullied’ at work, we live alone and when we come back to our empty home and stare at the pictures of ‘happier times’, it is easy to fall into depression.

We are given a life to learn and experience. There will definitely be decisions that we had regreted, people that we have lost. But if we were to think logically, most of the time, we learn and become wiser. Then we move on …and learn to appreciate the fact that we are living.

Nature have many ways of cheering a sad heart up- a night with bright stars or fluffy clouds. Question is, are we too stuck in our misery to notice them?

Nature have many ways of cheering a sad heart up- a night with bright stars or fluffy clouds. Question is, are we too stuck in our misery to notice them?

Most of the time, people who are depressed tend to forget the silver lining- they always focused on the very thing that are making them sad. For instance, a mother felt a child had let her down- and she kept crying and dwelling on the child. But she forgets that her husband or another child is there for her- in her focus of the one who let her down, she forgets about the one(s) who loved her.

I believed a good lesson can be learned from the movie “Titanic”.

Yes, I know some people absolutely can’t stand the cheesiness movie. But what I saw in the movie is the lesson: despite all the effort to save the both of them, Jack die and Rose survived. Jack was holding her hands and he died as his insides were frozen in the Atlantic sea. Rose had to let his hand go and move on to get help. She survived… and she went on to do the things that she would never had done if she had not met Jack- she rode a horse, took up flying, and made various other achievements. She lived a full life, got married and had lots of grandchildren.

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  • YuanHe Jun 8, 2009 Link Reply

    I love this post. I love it…

    Thanks Yin Teing….

  • Tyler Nov 7, 2011 Link Reply

    That’s why Facebook is so bad for people. It keeps them stuck in a cycle with their High School friends for life.

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