Most of us accept without question that what happened in the past is set in stone, but is it really? Having grown up and gone to school in three different countries, I remember being confused and at the same time fascinated by the stuff taught in history classes because each culture had its own spin on events that affected the whole planet. Who was right? Or more right? What did actually happen, I wanted to know?
During my junior year of college I took a sort of unorthodox history class — thanks to the professor, who was a true teacher and not just a regurgitator of dubious facts — and I learned that what happened in the past is for the most part subject to the interpretation of whoever is telling the story about it. Finally, a history class that made sense! And how relatable that was to my own life because even then, in my early 20s, I could see that my life in the rearview mirror almost magically changed as I started looking at it through a wider lens, one that allowed a lot more room for understanding and forgiveness than the standard the-world-is-evil lens I had been looking through until then.
We may not be able to change the facts about our past, but we certainly can change the story we tell ourselves about our past. At any time, we are free to reinterpret our past and set ourselves free from the guilt, shame, anger, regret or sadness we have been holding onto.
At 15 years old, I was angry at life and disappointed with the whole world after being displaced from a war-torn country I thought was my home into a strange country that felt nothing like home. Five years later, I was grateful to have eventually ended up in the United States, which turned out to be the only physical place that ever felt like home to me. The circumstances that took me from there to here didn’t change, but my perception of them and their meaning for my life certainly changed.
For years, I resented my dad for being closed off emotionally and seemingly uninterested in anyone else’s life. I drew the conclusion that he just must be a selfish person, unable to love anyone. As I started to soften my own emotional armor, I realized that my dad was simply horrified of showing his emotions and that his rough exterior was the only way he learned as a boy to protect his tender heart from the abuse he endured. In the last few years before he passed I could look into his eyes and finally see all the love I always wanted from him; no words were needed. He didn’t change, but my perception of him changed.
I could go on and on with examples like this, from momentous to mundane events in my own life, and I’m sure you can do the same. I think we all would be blown away with compassion, for ourselves and for others, if we took the leap of faith and looked at our painful past in the light of our current awareness. The price we’ll pay is the admission that we may have been wrong in our interpretation of something or someone or even ourselves. I’m happy to say that I have been proven wrong countless times. I still am being proven wrong and I do my best to take it all in with as much love and compassion — for myself and for others — as I can.
I invite you to pick one painful memory, whichever one seems appropriate and somewhat digestible, and see if you can reinterpret the circumstances around it in the light of your present awareness. What did you learn because of what happened? And if you think you didn’t learn anything, or that you couldn’t possibly have learned anything from such a horrible event, try to distance yourself from the memory and ask instead: what could a person learn from a similar circumstance? Please don’t give up until you feel yourself soften and open enough to listen to your heart, rather than your mind.
Long before I even heard about the most basic spiritual teaching (which is simple: you are spirit, having a human experience), I somehow knew that I was meant to be born in a turbulent country and witness some of the worst humans are capable of, so that I could learn to love humanity anyway. Many years later I don’t even wonder whether this is true because I know that on the soul level, within this illusion of separation we call the world, we all choose the exact trials we have as humans and we can use all those experiences to learn and grow in awareness of our ultimate nature, which is love.
We can literally change the past by changing our story about it, by reinterpreting the past from the perspective of the spirit, rather than the narrow view of the human. With our past seen in a new light, we can pave the way for a future set free from the ghosts of long-held hurts, regrets and resentments. Maybe the memories we’d rather erase from our awareness are the base metal waiting to be turned into gold. As the 17th century Indian poet Tukaram said: “I know not what my past still has in store for me.” And I know I’m ready and unafraid to find out.