When I was about four years old and playing in the ocean, the undertow pulled me deeper and I lost the ground from underneath me. I saw the lifeguards in the distance, but they didn’t see me, and I was paralyzed - I couldn’t save myself. My mom reached from out of nowhere, a bit of fear on her face, and rescued me. Growing up, whenever I was in a scary situation (in class, among peers, or otherwise), I knew I couldn’t handle it myself and I needed someone to rescue me.
When I was about five years old, something happened when I was in the basement reaching for a board game and I realized that I am a problem solver.
Again when I was about four years old something happened with some groceries my mom brought home, and I vowed that ever after I would be a good boy.
The past is a memory, but we don’t leave its experiences behind us. In fact, the reason it looks so much like the past is what’s made us who we are is that the decisions and interpretations we made in our past experiences get misfiled in the future, and we live into them over and over and over again. (This is one of the introductory lessons in the Landmark Forum weekend workshop.)
It’s the simplest act of survival: we find ourselves in a threatening or challenging situation, so we figure out a way to help us avoid or succeed in such situations in the future. Something happens and we plop a lesson for ourselves out there in the future, a decision on how to act or who we will be, so we can live into it again and again to avoid the threat or failure that we experienced before.
This is actually a really powerful strategy to survive. Of course we’d like to avoid threatening situations in the future, and of course we want to succeed when we’re faced with challenges. So yes, let’s use these strategies going forward, but let’s also be aware that there are two drawbacks to this mechanism.
First, as my student Myles discovered, these effective strategies to survive can also be constraining. When we are unaware of the mechanism and we live into these strategies without observing the mechanism at work, we identify with the strategies, they become who we know ourselves to be, and they may limit our abilities to act in the moment. We become typecast in the experiences of our own lives.
Second, we become characters in the story of our lives, playing roles designed by our former selves. This can be fun and dramatic and thrilling at times, but there's a drawback: the spirit of our true nature and our ability to thrive and choose no matter the circumstances withers; more often than we'd like, we become no more than a role that we’ve predetermined that we must play. Sometimes the characters we play are happy, enlivened, and in action in life. At other times our characters are despondent, tired, and dissatisfied with playing the same role in life regardless of the set, co-stars, or scene.
Perhaps all we are is actors in the stories of our lives. Even so, when my role is defined by the decisions of 4- or 5- or 17- or 39-year-old me, or defined by a culture I inherited, my experience in this story is rather limited. Get grounded, bring your thoughts to the present, and act bravely, thoughtfully, and freely. There’s not really a future “out there” anyway.
Thanks so much for reading. ❤️
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