A “don’t look back!” approach to life has lots of appeal. We aim for bright futures. Why not focus all our mental energies on plowing ahead with vigor? Preoccupations with the past can slow us down. Future-mindedness, for good reason, is deemed a character strength for people of all ages.
Yet totally turning away from the past is not the best way to build a well-directed future. We can’t learn lessons from past mistakes unless we openly recognize them. We can’t unburden ourselves from old regrets and resentments unless we confront them. In a positive sense, our past accomplishments contain rich troves of ideas about what we’re capable of doing, what’s given us satisfaction, who we’ve become, and who we can aspire to be in the years to come. This is what Soren Kierkegaard meant when he wrote, “Life can only be understood backwards; and then it must be lived forwards.” A contemporary version of this insight was offered by Steve Jobs at a Stanford commencement address in 2005: “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”
When thinking about our past, we often recall the high points with nostalgia and the low points with regret. While these are natural emotional inclinations, they are not particularly useful because neither nostalgia nor regret help us with the challenges of coping with the present and preparing for the future. They may even stop us from confronting these challenges by disguising what actually happened and obscuring important lessons we otherwise would have taken to heart.
In my life, a dramatic phone call from my daughter triggered in me a burning desire to take a new look at my past and the people who shaped it. I had grown up without a father, and when I was young I was led to believe that he was killed during World War II. When I later found out that he survived the war and abandoned my mother and me before I was born, I deduced that he was a scoundrel and I wanted to hear no more about him. But my daughter’s phone call revealed a different story that, to my surprise, affected me deeply.
My daughter had taken an interest in her grandfather and discovered that, after disappearing from my life, my father forged a distinguished Foreign Service career and established a second family with daughters who were my unknown half-sisters. He passed away before I heard this, but he left a trail of records, friends, and relatives that I could explore for further discoveries. I had never seen a picture of him or knew anything about what he was like. Now, fired with curiosity, I found out everything I could. In the process, I gained an understanding of how he had influenced my own life in ways I never imagined.
The revelations of my father’s life moved me to conduct a “life review,” a method of self-analysis developed by the legendary psychiatrist Robert Butler. A life review involves searching our memories, interviewing old friends and relatives, and retrieving school records and archival documents. With it, we can reconstruct our pasts in a manner that can provide three benefits: 1) acceptance of the events and choices that shaped our lives, fostering gratitude for the life we’ve been given, in place of self-doubt, regret, and resentment; 2) an authentic understanding of who we are and how we got to be that way, leading to a well-grounded self-identity; and 3) a clarity in the directions we wish to take our lives, reflecting what we have learned from what has given our lives meaning in the past.
By finding the positive in earlier experiences — including experiences that may have appeared unfortunate at the time — we can affirm the value of our lives and chart a hopeful path forward. As Butler wrote: “One’s life does not have to have been a ‘success’ in the popular sense of the word. People take pride in a feeling of having done their best . . . and sometimes from simply having survived against terrible odds.” Butler believed that life reviews would promote “intellectual and personal growth, and wisdom” throughout the lifespan. He noted many psychological benefits, including the capacity to enjoy pleasures such as humor, love, nature, and contemplation; and “an acceptance of the life cycle, the universe, and the generations.” This, of course, is a list of the pillars of psychological health.
My life review uncovered a wealth of insights about how I developed my interests, skills, beliefs, and personal characteristics. One influence I never realized was that my father attended the same school as I, a fine independent school mostly unknown to the less-advantaged circles in which I was raised. This revelation cleared up a question that always puzzled me: how did I make my way to this exceptional school? It now became clear that my mother had arranged the necessary scholarship and urged me to attend because she knew that my father had gone there decades earlier. With my new awareness, I was able to see how this choice was pivotal and turned my life in a direction it may otherwise not have taken. What’s more, as I searched my old school records, and my father’s, I found other fascinating insights regarding personal traits he and I shared, including some longstanding foibles (such as a degree of “stubbornness” that several of my teachers noted over the years) that I decided I still had time to correct in myself.
During my life review, I also determined that, because of my intentional obliviousness to elements of my past, I missed opportunities to meet my father and his family when I was young. The review exposed mistakes I made. For example, I avoided the difficult conversations with my mother that would have clarified the truths about my father’s life in the years before my mother passed away. Those years, like all years, are irretrievable. I needed to come to terms with these regrets. My life review helped with that, too.
I came to wish that I had started my life review earlier. I lived too long with unresolved feelings about growing up fatherless, with mistaken notions about how I took the schooling path that led me to my vocation, and without contact with members of my family who would have been a great joy to know. The information that my life review uncovered resolved those feelings, revealing the truth about my father, correcting my false assumptions about my own developmental trajectory, and enhancing my present-day family relationships.
There is a paradox at the heart of a life review. The ability to look forward in a confident, well-directed manner requires looking back in an intentional and open way. We cannot separate the past, present, and future like walled-off compartments on a moving train. As Faulkner said, “The past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past.” To be fully alive now and in the future, we must realize that our past, far from being dead, is in many ways a living concern and has many life-giving lessons to teach us.
William Damon is a professor at Stanford University, director of the Stanford Center on Adolescence, and senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He is author of the new book, A Round of Golf with My Father: The New Psychology of Exploring Your Past to Make Peace with Your Present(Templeton Press).
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