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Look Back Long Enough to Let Go

Why dredge up painful or even traumatic memories from one’s personal past or from the history of one’s church or other religious organization? Isn’t it best to focus on the future and let the past stay behind us?

The past shapes the present moment, whether we like it or not. This is true for individuals, families, churches and other kinds of congregations.

The past has the power to haunt our current life without our even being aware. With conscious effort and appropriate guidance it can be transformed and released. “Look back long enough to let go”, a line from a poem by Alla Renee Bozarth sums up this process. Whether you are an individual, a family or a congregation it often helps to invite a counselor or therapist to help guide you through this work.

When I dwell on past events with anger, rage and shame, focusing on deep pain, hurt and loss, without doing the hard work of learning to shift my perspectives, I become a victim. Some symptoms a victim might experience include dependent or difficult relationships with others, low self-esteem and anxiety.

When I ignore past traumatic events, pretending that they did not affect me, and telling myself, “I am not vulnerable. I’ve left it all behind.” then I am in denial. Being in denial often times presents itself as anxiety, depression and substance abuse. The symptoms might appear to stem from what is happening in the present when in fact they are in large part a response to unresolved issues from the past.

When I build up the courage to revisit the past, to mold nuggets of wisdom in the fire of self-examination and hold on to these… When I revisit the past long enough to offer forgiveness, especially self-forgiveness…When I learn to let go of the rest, sometimes piece by piece, then I am truly free, birthed anew in the midst of life. A lightness, joy and sense of well-being fills each day for no obvious reason.

Sometimes that sense of well-being stays for the long term. Often it comes in waves and stages like the process of grief that is necessary when dealing with difficult and traumatic events and responses from the past.

Acknowledging the ways in which the past affects us and changes us matters. For example, we could be individuals who face the effects of growing up with alcoholic parents, or members of a church in where the pastor died suddenly while preaching decades earlier, or members of a synagogue that experienced a messy leadership transition in the past.

Congregational counseling or consulting can help churches, synagogues, temples or other religious organizations to examine the past in a structured way, looking for patterns that hinder current relationships or organizational processes and for patterns that have been particularly beneficial. With this insight the congregation forms an Action Plan designed to reach agreed on goals for healthy interaction and emotional process.

This deep level systems work has benefits beyond the church, synagogue, temple or religious organization. It changes perspectives which can lead to positives changes in the members’ relationships with self, family and workplace as well.

Looking back at painful situations from the past long enough to learn and heal, to reframe and forgive allows people to be able to truly let go. This leads to a vital and more peaceful future.

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