The past. For some the past is not just a time to be remembered, but also a time that they can’t seem to escape…a place that they chose to live in today. The inability to put the past in proper perspective and live in the present is a part of what we now call PTSD. The terms “shell-shocked” and “the fog of war” were used after WWI to describe that state of mind in which many soldier returned to civilian life. Whatever it is called, a major component of this condition is the inability to put the past behind and forge a new life ahead. You might occasionally encounter an ex-soldier with this condition wandering the streets. But, they might tell you that they are not wandering. They are “out on patrol”. They are living in the past.
For some who suffer from this condition, only professional help will be able to bring them into the here and now. For many it is enough to find a new mission, a new purpose, a new place to belong, a new “family”. A key factor in the inability to let go of the past for many soldiers may be that the friends they had in stressful combat situations became like family to them. These were people that they counted on to have their backs in firefights and to watch their backs on patrol. For many, younger soldiers, who were experiencing their first time away from their birth homes, these buddies became their family. When they return from these experiences in foreign lands and are released from active duty, many do not find any replacement for that feeling of mission or family, even if they return to their birth home. Some choose to live in the past, reliving their time with their buddies in combat, where they felt more comfortable, more “at home”.
Soldiers aren’t the only ones who suffer from this condition. Many of the mass shooting tragedies that we see in the news today have at their root a failed relationship – a romance or marriage gone bad. Some of the perpetrators in those cases may seek revenge as closure, a way out of the trap of the past that they have been living in. Most end with their own, self-inflicted death. These are people who can not put the past behind them and live in the moment.
It may seem like a daunting task to try to help someone with this condition. Many are initially resistant to help. But, remember that a key component is the lack of a new “family” that they can relate to and feel comfortable with, a new squad to be a part of with a new mission. Perhaps that s why programs to match up veterans struggling with PTSD with dogs is so effective. Dogs provide unconditional love in return for their care and caring for them provides a sense of purpose and mission to the vet. Caring for the animal forces them to live in the present.
Dogs can provide a wonderful first step back into the present for many of those vets, but you can provide the next vital step, if you will jump in and help. You can become that buddie that they can talk to and share stories. You can become a source of ideas and inspiration to take the necessary steps to get back into the mainstream of life and the workforce. Some may not realize that the time that they spent in the service equipped them with many of the skills that are valued in the workplace. The ability to take instructions and act upon them and the ability to work within a team structure are critical skills in today’s workforce. The old squad in combat becomes the work team in the plant or office. Help your buddie see that he/she can be a valued member of a new family at work and after hours. Help them stop living in the past and encourage their participation in the here and now. Let them know that you have their backs.
For those non-soldiers whose sense of loss or fear or self-doubt has driven them into isolation and a life in the past, it is important that they, too, find new purpose and relationships in the present. You can provide that bridge to the present by committing little more than your time. Just spending time with them listening is sometimes the best way to help them find their way out of the past. Just responding with comments like, “that must have been great, but what are you doing now?” might help. The idea is to help them re-establish perspective…to see that those things are in the past and that they need to focus more on the present. Perhaps the most difficult situation to deal with is the loss of a loved one – a spouse, a parent or a child. The challenge is to help them see those memories of the lost one as a place that they can visit from time to time… hopefully a happy place, but not a place to live in.
I love this quote from a book by Beryl Markham from her book West with the Night – “I have learned that if you must leave a place that you have lived in and loved and where all your yesteryears are buried deep, leave it any way except a slow way, leave it the fastest way you can. Never turn back and never believe that an hour you remember is a better hour because it is dead. Passed years seem safe ones, vanquished ones, while the future lives in a cloud, formidable from a distance.”
The past is no place to live, but you can get stuck there sometimes. I’ve written twice recently about living in the moment and this little quote from George Harrison ties these two themes together nicely – “It’s being here now that’s important. There’s no past and there’s no future. Time is a very misleading thing. All there is ever, is the now. We can gain experience from the past, but we can’t relive it; and we can hope for the future, but we don’t know if there is one.”
So remember the past, but don’t live there. Learn from the past, but dwell upon it (or in it). Your past might have been happy or sad, wonderful or horrible, boring or fulfilling; but, what are you doing now?