What can you do with a haunted past? Almost all of us have regrets. There are those things we wish we did and others we desperately want to undo. Yet as much as we try and leave them in the past and move forward, they always seem to linger. It might be material, lingering in the form of fractured relationships or debts. Sometimes they hang on to our psyche, haunting our thoughts and feelings. Others remain in the form of longings and desires so we find ourselves compelled to do the very things we despise.
Our Past Allows Us To Lead With Vulnerability
In May 2018 while chatting with a friend on Facebook Messenger I had a bit of a breakdown. I had unintentionally revealed one of my longstanding struggles and she asked a pointed question. While typically her response would prompt a litany of denial and defensiveness on my part, for a reason I still cannot explain, this time was different.
What followed was me pouring out my soul through my fingers. I talked about my doubts and fears. Years of self-hatred and struggle were all laid on the table. I unpacked my story as I understood it and detailed my battle to embrace my belovedness. Even the lingering effects of childhood abuse came up. Decades of tamped-down emotional vomit spilled out on the screen that day. When I finally finished the initial response was simple, “Joe, it’s okay.” Those words shook me. Could she see me and could I be okay?
The truth is, we all ask that question because we all believe that, if others truly see us they will reject us. It is not until someone else dares to lead with vulnerability, even by accident, that we begin to not feel so alone. This is why vulnerability is essential if we are going to live by love instead of power.
Our Past Can Teach Us Compassion and Empathy
Seven months after baring my soul, a friend recommended I read, The Four Agreements. This book of Toltec wisdom invites the reader to embrace four statements. The final one is, “Always do your best.” Typically, when I hear that, I would examine my life and see all the places I could have done better. This makes sense, after all, I grew up believing the quote, “If better is possible, good is not enough.” But the author took an unexpected turn and argued that, with only a few exceptions, all of us do our best almost all the time. The problem is how the tools we have at our disposal limit us.
For example, in years past, because faith began with my unworthiness, when offered belonging, something deep inside of me insisted it was always conditional. Sure people accepted me, but that was only because they did not fully know me. Even when my dark side was exposed, I did everything I could to temper its depths and excuse it away, hoping to maintain the illusion of likability. I wanted to believe people would embrace me, but if the truth about me stirred God’s wrath, why would people be any different?
Compounding matters, the one place I felt acceptance intertwined with childhood abuse. So I constantly found myself turning to the secretive and forbidden hopes of both resolving the pain and recreating that twisted embrace.
This means the tools I had at my disposal, my beliefs and experiences, set limits on what my best looked like. Instead of beating myself up for what I did wrong, having empathy for my past self invited compassion. It was a different form of, “Joe, it’s okay.”
And if I can learn empathy and compassion for myself, how much much more easily can easily extend it to others?
Our Past Can Reveal Our Deepest Longings
There is something else that comes with empathically listening to our own story. The opportunity to ask the simple question, “What was I pursuing?”
Looking at my story above, two things are immediately clear. One, I wanted to find some kind of resolution for childhood abuse. Second, I longed for a sense of belonging. Neither of these things is bad. The problem is not what I wanted, but how I was trying to attain it. So if I how I tried to attain it sets the stage for leading with vulnerability and nurturing compassion, what I sought sets the course for my future. How can I seek what my heart aches for healthily?
For me at the time, this meant trauma-oriented therapy and rooting myself in my belovedness. Having largely addressed those things I have moved on to other longings. Specifically, right now, I am seeking a sense of security through trust rather than control … although this newsletter is a day late in part because over the past couple of days, letting go feels like a terrifying emotional free fall.
This brings us back to vulnerability and self-compassion for my trust issues. Because the past is not just in the distance, it is also just a few moments ago.
Book: The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom by Don Miguel Ruiz
The aim of Ruiz’ book is to eliminate the needless suffering that most of us put ourselves through. He proposes we do this by embracing four simple ideas:
- Be Impeccable With Your Word
- Don’t Take Anything Personally
- Don’t Make Assumptions
- Always Do Your Best
While I highlight the fourth in this post, they have all played a helpful role in my journey, especially the second and third.
Sermon: Developing Love by Joe Burnham
In this May 2020 sermon, I preach my story and live out the ideas presented in this post.
When you look at your past, what are your deepest longings? Be vulnerable and share them with someone.
One of the most powerful tools I know to help discern a path forward is the Enneagram. I’ll share why next week.