The vernal equinox, Easter, Passover and the Iranian New Year are approaching. And this column marks the one-year anniversary of What Works. So I want to talk about renewal, fresh starts. (But first, thank you from the depths of my heart for being a part of this joyful process with me this past year.)
So, fresh starts. There’s a simple little saying you hear around self-improvement circles all the time: You can start your day over at any time. It’s a very useful tool: If you are aggravated and feel like the day is off-track, just pause, take a break for five minutes, walk around the block, say a prayer or meditate, and start again.
It seems a harmless enough little aphorism, but behind it is a huge spiritual principle. We are not controlled by the past. We aren’t controlled by the last sentence we said — we can apologize for its harshness, or acknowledge a lie and correct it — and we’re not controlled by career choices, moves or other huge life choices we’ve made — we can look at the present situation and decide what is best now (for ourselves and those around us) and do that.
We often think we are controlled by the past, though, and this is the cause of terrible suffering.
There’s an axiom in the entrepreneurial world that the successful small business millionaire has had seven failed businesses before that success. The principle is that things in your past or present that haven’t worked out are not “failures” but information. If you see them as failures, you will demoralize yourself and decrease the chances of future success. If you see them as information about how not to do things in the future, and make course corrections based on that information, then they increase the chances of realizing success and happiness in your future.
Even worse, when people are predisposed to seeing choices that don’t work out as failures, then they are reluctant to acknowledge them when they need to be addressed. There are strategic inflection points, says former Intel CEO Andy Grove, where you must make a big change and chart a new course in order to thrive. But the further a person or company goes down the wrong path, the more invested they become in denying they made a bad decision. And for good reason. To admit a mistake and correct your course can bring down a hailstorm of judgment, within yourself and from others, while remaining in denial can avoid that uncomfortable moment of admitting your error, and it can postpone the trouble. While Rome burns. Often, people prefer this option.
This is why spiritual principles of abundance and happiness can be so threatening to people who aren’t living them. I see this all the time: If someone who’s struggling to succeed is told, “Do what you love and the money will follow,” it can feel like a slap in the face. Because understood simplistically, it can feel like they’re being told if they were really trying, they’d succeed. I have referred to this vein of self-help as neo-Puritanism: those who fail deserve it. Fr. Richard Rohr says that the fallout of the me/self-help generations is that our biggest social ill now is self-hate, because everyone feels like they should be doing a better job of self-actualizing and finding the abundance that is guaranteed from that — a perversion of the proper life-long spiritual journey into a life-long sense that we should be, ought to be, further along on the spiritual journey than we are: a deep dissatisfaction with where we’re at and who we are.
As I’ve discussed here before, the “if-onlys” can be a killer. Self-criticism over past choices, playing out scenarios of what you wish you’d done, can be terribly toxic. Remind yourself that if you could have done differently in the past you would have, and that you are grateful for the opportunity to have greater awareness now. And get on with it.
The answer is simple, but not easy: honor God and yourself by fully realizing your potential, while remaining in total acceptance of things just the way they are right now.
A major hurdle in getting past self-hate and lack of acceptance of your life right now, as the basis for moving forward, is accepting the past as it is. In twelve-step programs, it is said that when you are spiritually fit, you don’t regret the past because it’s all part of what makes you the complex person you are today, with the ability to be more useful to others than you would have been without that complex past. That’s really hard for people, especially when there has been a conversion experience (in the traditional sense or without an explicit religious part.) Having this clear demarcation can set up The Past as a mistake, and The Present as the way things should be. But it’s all good; it’s all part of the unfolding reality. Fear of the past is not the proper motivator. That will run out of steam. The proper motivator is love of the present and future. That has infinite potential.
I’ve spoken here before about the discernment process, and about using setbacks and “failures” to build a better future. So I won’t cover that ground again. I encourage you two read those two columns if you haven’t already. Here, let me just leave you with this challenge: Stop beating yourself up about aspects of your life where you are not fulfilling your potential, and start asking yourself how you might move forward. If you feel stuck in some course of action because of past decisions, explore whether that’s really true, or if you only feel stuck because considering change would require owning up to the error of those past choices. (This doesn’t mean you can gut your life and walk away from wreckage of children, spouses, business partners and the like, without responsibility. But nothing is gained from not facing things honestly.)
Thank you again for sharing this column space with me over this past year. Having the opportunity to turn the twists and turns of my spiritual journey into something potentially useful to others — both in person and through this column — is one of my greatest blessings.
Have you navigated “inflection points” in your life well, or poorly? Have you started your day or your career or your life fresh, throwing off the idea that you were controlled by your past? Share your experiences here with others and me. You can leave a comment below, or email me at phil AT bustedhalo (DOT) com.