I’ve never been a fan of NYRs, mostly because I think we accidentally set ourselves up to fail: we announce big goals, but without a plan of small steps on how we’re going to get there. As a result, if we then fail to reach our goals, we end up giving up or feeling disappointed with ourselves, which is a shame because that failure is most likely down to bad planning rather than an inability to achieve the goal.
Anyway, I digress…
It was raining when I took the dog for a walk this morning, and I was wearing a baseball cap and had the hood of my coat up, to keep the rain off my face. As I was walking along the beach I was aware that I couldn’t easily look behind me because the cap and hood got in the way. And I felt like God said to me: “you can’t look behind you”. At first, I was a bit confused because of course, I could see behind me, if I just twisted my shoulders or turned at the waist. But then I began to think more about the phrase – something about it resonated with me? As I walked along I began to think about it in terms of the past in the future.
We look behind us all the time: we look behind us to judge the future. We look at past events and use that as a way to assess or guess what the future outcome of something might be. It’s how we’re wired, our brains are wired in this way intentionally: we learn from the past in order to make decisions about the future. As children, we learn about how high we can swing before we fall off. This is because we have fallen off once before and therefore we learn how high we can go before we’re likely to fall off again. We learn how to run, how to write, how to read – we learn how to judge social situations by making mistakes. It’s the key component and factor in how we learn things and how we progress, how we grow and how we mature.
Emotionally this is a particularly strong dynamic and Daniel Goleman explains it well in his books on emotional intelligence: essentially what he points out is that when an event occurs our brains record not only factual information, but also emotional and sensory information as well. Thus when we encounter a similar event in the future, our brains access any and all relevant information and use that in order to tackle the situation we’re currently facing.
For example: let’s say a child encounters a dog for the first time. The dog happens to be a large breed and it barks excitedly. However, the child was frightened. The next time this child meets a dog, their brain informs them: Dogs are large. They make a loud noise. They are frightening. Even though the new dog they’re encountering hasn’t barked and isn’t loud, the child is still afraid. The child is afraid because they were scared by a different dog on a previous occasion. It takes the calm presence of an adult to help the child understand that not all dogs are large or scary, in order to help the child overcome their fears.
Our perception of the past shapes our view of the future.
This dynamic of drawing on the past to assess the present and the future is an ordinary, familiar and expected mechanism. It happens all the time, every day in our lives, in big and small ways. It’s entirely understandable that we use the past to anticipate the future.
However, on that walk, I began to wonder if God wasn’t challenging me and perhaps others as well, to think differently about the future? I wondered if God was saying: “Don’t look at the past to assess what the future is because the past has gone, I’m not re-doing the old things. The future is a clean, clear, sheet which you can’t read, but if you were to superimpose the past on to the future then you only see what you expect to see. ”
And that perhaps is the crucial element here: our expectations can sometimes define our outcomes.
If we always use the past as the lens through which we see the present and the future, then there is a very real danger that we will only see what we expect to see. We begin to anticipate others responses, attitudes and behaviour and we pre-empt their behaviour by responding to what we think they’re going to do – not what they’ve actually done.
Now it’s true that there is wisdom in learning from our mistakes and learning from past and Einstein wisely pointed out that only a fool repeats the same actions and expects a different result.
BUT – I’m not sure that we can simply apply a binary ‘yes’ or ‘no’ approach to the past and the future. I’m not sure that we can be so complacent, or even as lazy as to say: “Well, I know he’s always like this, so I won’t bother,” or “I know that always happens, so there’s no point in changing anything.” We have to be wiser, more sophisticated, more discerning. The general rule of learning from mistakes is a good one on the whole. But when it becomes an excuse for not challenging ourselves or changing our behaviour…that’s just apathy. No-one else does that to you. No-one else imposes that on you or makes you a victim of that outcome. That’s just you.
So how and when do we tell the difference? When do we acknowledge and benefit from the lessons of the past and when do we take off those lenses and lay them down and look at things with fresh eyes again? It certainly feels risky sometimes, to dare to imagine something different on the horizon – to dare to consider that something new might arise from the circumstances or context before us? There is a risk of being hurt, of being disappointed. A risk of being frustrated and let down again. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have outcomes and expectations; it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be hopeful or look forward or indeed learn from our mistakes. But when that begins to falsely shape and warp our perception and our behaviour, that’s when it creates a problem.
There is a very real risk I think, that we ourselves might perpetuate the very problems we anticipate, simply because we’ve made assumptions….simply because we’ve used the past to measure the future.
So what now should we do? Well, I hope I’ve been able to explain clearly enough that there isn’t a simple answer – if you were looking for a ‘light-and-fluffy’ ‘Happy-New-Year-Happy-Thoughts!’ piece, I’m afraid this isn’t it! But what I can offer is hope: if we can begin to recognise where our ‘past lenses’ are obscuring our ‘future perceptions’, then there’s a good opportunity for things to change: for us to take responsibility for our own reactions and expectations and allow ourselves to open to new ideas and different behaviour from those around us.
“Do not cling to events of the past
or dwell on what happened long ago.
Watch for the new thing I am going to do.
It is happening already—you can see it now!
I will make a road through the wilderness
and give you streams of water there…” Isaiah 43:18