Eye on the past…

By: Talyn Terzian Gilmour

If you’re too stuck on the past, will you miss your future?  This is often something I wonder about.  Whether you’re mulling over a regret or bad decision, or yearning for the good old days when life was much simpler, could focusing too much on one’s past stop them from shaping their future?  And do I sound too much like my grandmother??

I believe that as human beings we are somewhat wired to focus on our past.  Recently, I read about the human brain and its different parts.  I was a little distracted in my reading as only a few parts really stuck with me – perhaps I shouldn’t have been trying to absorb this material while laying on a sunny dock on the edge of a cool lake (oooh…shiny object…hmmm…do I need more sunscreen – wait, did I apply any before I got out here?!)

There is a part of our brain, the amygdala, that stores our most painful memories:  a break-up, an accident, a loss.  These are so that we learn from those events and steer clear so as not to (hopefully) subject ourselves to the hurt feelings again.  In caveman days, this part of the brain would have been what would lead us to not touch fire or to not try and pet the very cute saber-toothed tiger.

The other, “reptilian” part of the brain is that which controls instinct.  Again, this part developed during caveman times and is somewhat outdated for life in modern times.  This is the part of the brain that triggers our “fight or flight” response.  Again, backed into a corner by an angry woolly mammoth would trigger the body’s cortisol and release our adrenaline to make us fight our way out…alternatively, it may give fuel to our legs to run as fast as we can away from imminent danger.

Without looking at the past and learning about why we are the way we are…or why we respond to our world around us in ways which are seemingly less logical or rational, we wouldn’t understand that there’s something much more powerful taking over…the past.

On my annual pilgrimage to the “North Land” – otherwise known as the cottage – I am left questioning many things from my past.  Like why my career path took the turns that it did.  Why certain people in my life were taken away too soon.  Or why I was faced with so many obstacles and hurdles when it came to my renovation project.  I wonder sometimes, did I not read the signs?  Did I not gather enough information to make my decisions?  Could I not have been more prepared?  I mull these, and other questions, in my mind over and over in an attempt to find some piece of the puzzle that will ease my mind beyond that which I already believe (albeit, sometimes with great difficulty): everything happens for a reason.

Perhaps mother nature can provide more answers…

Have you ever watched a “daddy-long-legs” spider get from one place to another?  These creatures are fascinating.  The daddy long legs spider has a small, oval shaped body with 8 very long, hair-like legs.  As it creeps and crawls, it uses one of its legs to navigate.  It pauses, bobbing up and down, as it reaches around almost 270 degrees in front and to its sides with its navigational leg, as it travels from one terrain’s surface to the next.  If you watch casually, you may think that it’s like a slightly drunk person, doing an awkward dance in an attempt to steady oneself when in reality, it is continuously gathering and processing information before it commits the rest of its entirety – after all, life itself is at risk.

There are times when I wish I could be like the dancing daddy long legs spider…instead, I’m about as impulsive as any one of the mosquitos that flies top speed towards the brightest light, only to get burned.

So, if I was to encapsulate this into a statistical equation, my impulsiveness, borne out of a child-like desire to embrace life, jump head first, and feel my way through, greatly increases the probability for questioning, wondering and with a focus on my rear-view.  In other words, just as Mr. Daddy long legs has a 270 degree view ahead, I am left with a 270 degree view focused on what’s behind:  what if I had said this?  What if instead of making that right turn, I turned left?

In statistics and in life there is one thing that has a probability of zero, the past is in the past and nothing can change it.  And despite my reveries and desire to better understand why things are the way they are, the present will not allow me to stay in the past – and in so doing, it saves me from my ponderings. 

In my present, I find I am surrounded by a gentle warmth as the sun has broken through the clouds and melts away my ponderings, the gentle lap-lapping of the waves against the dock are calling out that it’s time for a loud splash into the black water of the lake, and the wind, rustling through the leaves, cheers me on as I hesitate for a moment thinking about the cold water.  No fighting, no flight, and no amygdala to tell me that jumping in the lake will surely mean I’ll freeze to my death.  I can safely put my past on pause – it will be exactly where I left it – and venture to figure it all out in my future.