We shouldn't dwell on the past, but we can learn from it to help us move forward.

I have spent much of my life thinking about the past, which isn’t always a good thing.

I’ve dragged heavy baggage around with me. I defined myself by my actions and experiences in the distant past. I judged my husband based on long-ago memories.

Dwelling in the past is not a good thing, which the Bible makes clear:

Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland. Isaiah 43:18-19

Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. Philippians 3:13-14

I know from experience that it is not good to live in the past.

However, thinking about the past has also played a critical role in helping me heal and move forward.

Why is it sometimes damaging and sometimes helpful?

Here’s what I think makes the difference. When I think about the past in order to do a new thing, to use what I learn to help me strain toward what is ahead, reaching for the goal, I am thinking about the past for a purpose.

Looking behind isn’t the problem. Rather, the problem is looking behind because you want to go back or don’t want to go forward.

We live our lives, each day building on the ones that came before. Our background shapes how we see our experiences. When we encounter something, everything we’ve done up to that point shapes how we see that experience.

As we journey through life, we bring the past with us.

We see today through the lenses of yesterday, looking ahead but not fully moving forward.

Looking Backward into the Journey

Several years ago, someone I vaguely knew passed away after a lengthy illness. His wife had blogged about their shared journey for several years.

Although I didn’t know either of them well, he was a nice guy and his wife was a clever writer, so I subscribed to the blog. Every post gave me a new piece of their story as a snapshot of how things were right then. I learned about things as they experienced and wrote about them.

Some events were clearly milestones. (Once an organ is removed, you kind of know some things will be different.) Mostly, though, much of the information seemed rather mundane. Test results. Surgical discoveries. Illness. Bouncing back. Repeat.

Until the end, it was hard to know which events mattered or where their journey was headed.

After this person died, I found myself wondering how and when things had gotten so bad—even though I’d been reading about it all along. What events were significant in how the journey turned out?

So I reread the blog in its entirety—in reverse.

Looking backward into the journey, through the lenses of how everything turned out, the milestones appeared. I recognized the seasons of the illness, with ups and downs demarcated by results or events that at the time hadn’t stood out much at all.

Reading backward, the important moments were sentinels. The points that shifted the journey’s trajectory emerged to stand tall over the path, pointing the way that became forward.

Reading forward, the journey had unfolded without a sense of direction.

Reading in reverse, the journey was clear.

~~~

As life unfolds, we certainly experience some moments that clearly delineate a before and after: a birth, a death, the discovery of a betrayal, or a crisis. With some events, we know things will be different afterward. Mostly, though, we just deal with life events as they materialize, not knowing what will prove to be momentous or what will fade into the background and be of little significance.

We sometimes find ourselves at a point in life that catches us by surprise. How did I get here? we might ask ourselves.

Just like we can read a blog post or social media feed in reverse, we can look back at life, seeing from the vantage point of our current circumstances. Seeing from where we are, the important moments stand out. We can see the points and influences that shifted our life’s trajectory in ways we couldn’t recognize at the time.

Learning from the Past

My marriage had a few moments that I knew at the time were significant. Mostly, though, I just plowed through. I experienced our marriage and dealt with things as I needed to, with no idea what would turn out to matter. I moved forward with no sense of where I was going.

Reading through the lenses of yesterday, looking forward, showed me little.

In 2009 and 2010, I recognized that my marriage was clearly unwell. I’d experienced everything as it had happened, yet I still found myself wondering, How on earth did I get here? How did we get here? Is it possible to move forward from here?

I began to read my marriage in reverse in order to learn, looking back at the journey of my marriage from the vantage point of where we were at the time. It became clear which events had been pivotal in getting us the point where we were.

The milestones became clearly visible. I could see the seasons of our marriage, with ups and downs demarcated by results or events that at the time had been mundane.

Many critical milestones in my marriage hadn’t seem momentous at the time. It was only in looking back that I could see the significance of these events. Reading in reverse, I could see how all those things fit together to create the path that had brought me to where I was.

Seeing the past through the lenses of where I had arrived, I could see what had shaped my marriage.

~~~

With a blog about an illness that ends with a death, reading in reverse can show us the moments that shaped the path that led to the end—but it does nothing to help us change anything. We see the wounds and illnesses that made things worse, but our new knowledge brings no healing.

Fortunately, when it comes to other life issues—including marriage—it’s a different story.

When I wondered, How on earth did I/we get here? in my marriage and looked back, those milestone moments became signposts pointing me to areas that needed healing.

The Signposts That Point toward Healing

As I wondered how I’d come to shut myself down, I clearly saw a conversation and remembered the words that had hurt. I saw the times I made decisions because I remembered the conversation. When I wondered why I was uncomfortable with my sexuality, I saw events that had taught me to associate my sexuality with shame. Looking at my general discontent in my marriage, I recognized events and conversations that had shaped my perception and my unhappiness.

Looking back, with the knowledge of where things had ended up, the important moments stood out like sign posts. The points that shifted my marital journey’s trajectory emerged to stand tall over the path, pointing the way that became forward.

Each sign post marked an area where I was hurting and needed to heal.

More than that, reading my marriage in reverse also showed me so many moments when God had been there, holding us up and holding us together even though we couldn’t see it at the time. Seeing God’s presence woven throughout the timeline of my marriage provided a healing all its own.

Some might say that reading in reverse is just dragging up the past. That’s true, if all you do is look at it to keep your attention behind you.

I began by asking myself, Is it possible to move forward from here?

Looking back in order to move forward was what made the difference.

Reading in reverse showed me the past in a way that helped me make positive changes.

Reflecting with a Purpose

The blog that I read backwards, chronicling an illness, didn’t end at the death or at the funeral. The widow continued sharing her story for a time, showing us how it looked to move forward. Then she started a new blog, not as a widow, but as a woman. It was a blog that focused on the new season of her life, one defined by her desire for oneness with God and not defined by her past.

The Bible tell us where our attention should be: ahead of us.

Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland. Isaiah 43:18-19

Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. Philippians 3:13-14

If all I want to do is hang out in the past, I am dwelling there and not forgetting.

My goal is to grow in intimacy with my husband and help us both move closer toward Jesus. Dealing with the past helps me leave behind the things that hurt and strain toward the goal ahead. It is part of the process of letting go.

When I look at the past to learn where to pray and work so I can heal and move forward, that is the very thing that allows me to leave the past behind me.

As I pray and seek healing, those things that have shaped the journey lose their hold on me so I can strain toward what is ahead. It helps me do a new thing to make a way in the wilderness as I forge ahead.

Reading in reverse—seeing yesterday through the lenses of today—can show us God’s presence and point us to areas that need attention and healing.

It is up to us to use what we see help us move forward as God wants us to, doing a new thing to press on, heavenward, toward the goal.

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6 Thoughts on “Reading in Reverse

  1. Anne on May 9, 2017 at 8:22 pm said:

    Wonderful insight.

  2. I have done quite a bit of reading in reverse the last few years. There were a few milestones in my marriage that were pretty obvious. Still, I had to go all the way back thru my childhood before I could clearly see not only those things that might have affected my marriage, but actually shaped me.

    It’s a process, and it can be pretty difficult at times, but it has allowed me to begin to heal not only myself, but other relationships as well.

    It really is a wonderful insight, and is essentally the root of recovery.

  3. I love your title and your concept. This is probably the most balanced and practical view of integrating the past and the future with scripture that I have seen.

    At times I have had people use such scriptures to try to get me to ignore even thinking about the past- and I think at times that can lead to burying stuff that blows up later. On the other hand- it is not healthy( and sadly a lot of our culture does it) to stay stuck in the past in the victim and blaming role and never move forward.

    One thing I am starting to realize that is helpful is that if you put your energy into moving forward, but then just seem to keep tripping yourself up- most likely it is something in your past that needs healed- and then you can move forward again.

    Great post.

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