I like to collect quotes and one of my favourites is this, by Rudyard Kipling. “Never look backwards or you’ll fall down the stairs.” It is such a hilarious image but so undoubtedly true; perfect for the New Year when we look to the future but all too frequently allow our minds to wander to the past.
It is the human condition to think about what might have been, but it does us no good. Regret is corrosive, it eats into our present and our future, too. It also leads to emotional paralysis because it stops us living in the present, (stops us living at all) and what else do we have? The past is gone and the future has not yet arrived. All we have is this day.
The past is littered with “shoulds” and, as any good therapist will tell you, it is a word that we would do well to banish from our vocabulary. It is so punishing, a verb that above all others (actually we could include, “must” in that) becomes a stick with which we beat ourselves.
“I should have done this, I should have done that and if I had, why, things would be so much better now.”
Well, would they? The only thing that might be better would be banishing such thoughts from our minds. We didn’t do whatever we think we “should” have done, and no amount of wishing is going to change that. Nor is dwelling on it.
I once heard a Buddhist monk talking about anger. She described how we can keep resentment alive in the present, by dwelling on it so fiercely. The actual moment is gone, the cause of our anger is in the past. If we constantly repeat it, turning it over and over in our minds like a washing machine set to a constant spin cycle, it will never leave us alone. We will inhabit it, and it grows larger, not smaller. The proverbial mountain springing from the tiniest molehill.
The foolish thing is that the only person it is damaging is ourselves. The cause of our resentment has moved on, out of sight, and is, most likely, living in happy ignorance of that thing that is consuming us. Here’s a saying from the Buddha. “Holding onto anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at somebody else. You are the one who gets burnt.”
I learnt to deal with petty resentments by driving a car. I know, it sounds mad. If a car was driving so close to my rear that it may as well just have hooked itself onto my bumper, I used to slow down purposefully, or manoeuvre to the middle of the road so it couldn’t get past. The result? A battle, fuelled by rage. These days, I simply pull over and let that car (or van. What is it about men who drive white vans?), go past. I am calm, whatever idiot is driving that car is happy, and we can both go about our business free from the anger and burning resentment that would, inevitably, have coloured our day a deep and furious black – and which we would have listened to on constant replay.
I did this when I was driving with a friend. She was astonished but, also, curiously, angry. “How could you just let them go past like that?!” I asked her what good it would have done to stand so stubbornly in their way. “They shouldn’t be allowed to get away with it.” Honestly, does it matter? I mean, really matter, in the greater scheme of things? How many seconds of our lives would we have saved by not pulling over? Thirty? And how many minutes of our day would we waste on anger as we relived it? Thirty? Sixty? Ninety?
I am as capable, and culpable, as the next person when it comes to hanging onto anger and resentment. Fairly recently, I was involved in a bitterly unhappy divorce and wasted far too much time stamping around, shouting at the unfairness of it all. It got so bad, I was basically going through the same divorce on a daily basis, long after the lawyers had pocketed their money and my ex had disappeared into the sunset. In the end I dealt with my thoughts as if they were a naughty child. The moment they started to misbehave, I would stop them with a sharp, “no.” After a while, they gave up and left me in peace. And, I have to say, a great deal happier.
Here’s another quote, from Ralph Waldo Emerson. “For every minute you are angry, you lose sixty seconds of happiness.”
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