Dwelling on past issues a waste of time

Tue, May 1, 2012, 01:00

THAT'S MEN:Old regrets can rob us of the joy of living well

AT THE funeral of a man I did some business with before he retired, I found myself speaking to a red-faced gentleman who had stayed at the back of the church during the service.

As we followed the coffin, I muttered the usual nonsense about how decent the dead man was, etc, etc when my new companion told me in a quiet, bitter voice that decent was not the word he would use to describe him.

The dead man had cheated my companion, using knowledge given in confidence to slip in first and buy a field from which he made a lot of money.

He blamed himself for trusting this blackguard in the first place, he said.

His bitterness seemed deep and I got the impression that it had dominated much of his emotional life in the decades since this occurrence.

I asked why he had come to the funeral and he gave the expected answer: to make sure the so-and-so is dead.

It would be easy to write off my thankfully temporary companion as an unreasonable man. But that would be unfair. He was simply a victim of the human drive to solve problems and to resolve issues which are in the past and beyond solution.

We are problem-solving creatures and ever since we invented our first flint blades we have been accelerating our ability to solve problems. That is all very well – until we get stuck in trying to solve problems that cannot be resolved.

Then we are like a car spinning its wheels in the muck of the past. You can spin your wheels and burn your tyres all you like but you still stay stuck. Ultimately all you can do is walk away from the car and leave it behind.

That’s a hard lesson. Something in us cries out against the fact that many a bad turn will go unpunished. Perhaps that is why we invented Hell which, however, is now out of fashion even among Catholics.

Imagine a firm in which everyone is worn out by the racket coming from one particular department.

The curious visitor might seek out this department and discover a door with a large sign saying Unresolved Memories Department.

Behind the door unhappy, angry people try desperately to do the impossible job of solving problems that belong in the past: one person cheated by another; the dreams they could have followed and didn’t; the things they could have said and didn’t; the things they shouldn’t have done but did; the people they let down; the people who let them down; and so on and so forth.

They make a tremendous din in this department trying to resolve the unresolvable. They are so dedicated to their task that there are men and women here who have refused to retire.

There is only one solution: dish out redundancy notices, shut the department down and hang a “Gone Fishin” sign on the door.

Gradually, a measure of tranquillity will be restored.

I recognise that there is more to it for you and me than hanging that sign on the door.

When you’re on the riverbank on a balmy afternoon waiting for a tug on the line, there is a good chance that your unresolved issue will come winging into your mind. What do you do then?

What you do is to refuse to get caught up in the story, refuse to speak the lines of dialogue that you have spoken so many times before, and put your attention back on that fishing line which, as it is a metaphorical line, could be your breathing or the motion of your body as you walk.

It takes practice, this, but nothing compared to the practice it takes to keep trying to solve the unsolvable.

Life is short and much of it is difficult. The present and the future will provide us all with more than enough problems to solve.

The problems of the past that can’t be solved should be allowed to fade into obscurity, unresolved.

Padraig O’Morain (pomorain@ireland.com) is a counsellor accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His book, Light Mind - Mindfulness for Daily Living, is published by Veritas.

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