The Residue of the Past

While all the collected events of this life and others coalesce to make the unique you, you don’t have to be a victim of other people’s choices. Shedding the residue of the past is much easier than you think.

"I have always found myself holding onto my past. Be it my mistakes, choices, childhood memories - good and bad ones, regrets, words that have been spoken to me, and so on. I think looking back with joy is a good thing, but holding on to everything while trying to move forward is not so good. I came to terms that I need to accept my past and let it go while smiling towards what’s ahead, after all, 'better things are yet to come.'"

~ C.S. Lewis

We’re moving to a new home, and I realize I have a problem. Actually, I know I’ve had a problem for a long time. Most of my life really. Let’s just call it my hoarding tendency.

The living room of the old house is pregnant with brown cardboard boxes, many of which are labeled “HEAVY “on the side, some of which are labeled “HEAVY!!”. They are sealed, ready to move, and this is a public service announcement to the poor movers who have to hoof the boxes into the back of the truck. Hopefully it reminds them to lift with their backs, not their legs (right?).

My wife giggles at that joke, but it masks a bigger issue for me: I have a hard time letting go of things. Books. The past.

It’s true. I have a hard time letting go for a variety of reasons.

Sometimes it’s sentimental. I don’t want to forget something, usually something simple, like one of my kids drawings. They remind of a moment in time that’s already past by the time I receive the drawing. It’s a moment of innocence, of pure unabashed freedom from the self-consciousness the world demands of you as you age. I don’t want them to lose that. I want to go back to those days. This artifact reminds me of that. A lot of these end up as bookmarks in the books I do read.

Which highlights the major issue: I tend to keep things, like books, even though I have no intention of reading them again. Or reading them in the first place.

There are other things, of course, I just can’t bear to give up — old notebooks, sketchbooks, receipts, flyers from trips — the list goes on and on. They’re mostly the artifacts of good times past.

This is not something new. It’s something that I’ve done my whole life. I get interested in something, I acquire a lot of things about it — knowledge, books, experiences, pamphlets, etc. And I keep those things around. Then there are the things you keep that seem unavoidable, that you carry deep inside of you like a gooey surprise.

The Residue of the Past

Growing up, our house at holiday time was like a museum of misshapen, loosely holiday-themed children’s art. My mom proudly displayed all of the things my brothers, my sister, and me had created years ago in school, each piece with dates of creation noted on the back along with the child’s name, in case we forgot to include it.

Fond memories rush back like midwest summer thundershowers when I see a piece of work that one of us did over 30 years ago. But now that I’m older — and somewhat wiser — I look with some objectivity upon the whole affair, and I can’t help but wonder what drives in me this notion of hanging on to the past.

The short answer: the unknowable future.

I have trouble letting go of things, particularly objects, because I always assume I don’t know what will be of value in the future. So I reason I should keep as much as possible, even as years go by and I never think of or touch the thing again.

Despite this proclivity, my wife and I have worked out a pretty good system to manage my personal hoard. Every year, we go through our stuff and purge items we haven’t used. It’s literal spring cleaning. And every year it gives me the opportunity to review things I’ve kept from previous years and decide whether they’re still worth keeping. Most times, I part with things that I’ve kept in boxes over the years or books I know I’ll never finish or, worse, I’ll never start.

Like spring cleaning, moving is an additional opportunity to cull our possessions. Having moved three times in the last five years, including a cross-country move, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to consider my stuff and each time made reductions. Still there’s accumulation, and the distance of this move is much shorter, maybe half-a-mile.

But there’s still a process you have to go through whereby you evaluate all the things you’ve accumulated in life and determine their relative value. If there’s no value, it’s time to part with it. If, however, there’s still value to the object, then it has to find a place in the new home.

Going through this process reminds me of something I learned in physics class: there is friction. Friction is the resistance encountered when one surface moves over another. You encounter friction when moving through the air or when bumping against something. It can also be the conflict between two ideas or two worldviews, or even two approaches to problem solving. We generally try to reduce or avoid friction in life because it’s coupled with negative emotions.

On the other side is frictionless. When decisions intuitive, it’s because they’re nearly frictionless. There’s a tight alignment between our inner essence (who we are at our core) and our outer actions (how we show up in the world), which reduces friction.

For me, there is great friction between what I know to be true (I will never use this thing) and what might be true (I may need this someday). So stuff collects. My inability to know the future prevents me from letting go of the past. Therein lies the rub.

The Past in the Present

I love the ending scene of Steven Spielberg’s classic film “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” They’re crating the Ark of the Covenant in a massive warehouse. The camera focuses tightly on the act of crating it. We don’t see the people, only the act. Then they place it high up on a shelf, and as the camera zooms out, we see that this is one box in a massive warehouse full of what we assume are other antiquities.

I love this scene because it reminds me of how past experiences are collected and combined to create our present selves. While it’s not immediately apparent to us, everything we do in life, every interaction we have, becomes part of who we are. As we’ve come to discover, those experiences are baked into our genes.

In a 2017 study conducted by Rockefeller University, researchers determined that the DNA in 500 study participants, who were children, was altered by the environment that they lived in. In a longitudinal study with a lifetime of information, they were able to determine that participants had higher levels of DNA methylation — biochemical markers that affect gene expression — based on environmental circumstances. In essence, people’s genes were affected by the conditions in which they grew up.

We know that genetic predisposition to certain ailments and diseases is transmitted from parents to their children through DNA, but now it’s possible to actually reshape the genetic codebase that underwrites a human being through life experiences.

Turning into your parents as you age? Well, no shit.

The genetic deck is stacked against you in so many ways.

Not only are you a combination of their genes, but you’re also picking up some of the results of their life experiences, good and bad, the extra stuff that was baked into the genes by living. It sounds terrifying and inescapable, like the masked madman in a b-level slasher film.

But, you don’t have to be a victim of your genes.

Getting Clean

At some point, you have to claim your past and move on. It’s another experience, the lessons of which get stored in the gray matter in your head. And with enough introspection get turned into wisdom. You have to scrub your skin clean, remove the residue. It’s not easy, but it’s possible.

For me, getting clean involves creative work and the never-ending quest for self-discovery. I’m like an intrepid explorer, blazing across the galaxy of my self, finding new and curious creatures in the discoveries I make along the way. Through the exercise of writing or designing, I’m constantly developing a better sense of self and my purpose, diverging from the effects of the past.

This works, because the process of creation is in and of itself an act of self-discovery. When you’re creating something, whether for yourself or for a client, you must confront your own understanding of the world. Not just in the act of creation, but in your interactions with the client and partners, and ultimately through the experience of the work you create. Your understanding, or your construct of the world is especially challenged when it comes to client work or corporate work.

This happens because you find that you’re often asked to do things in a way that may not be a best practice. Or your experience may have taught you that there’s a better way. Or data may be pointing a different direction. And the client just doesn’t seem to give a rip no matter how you present it to them.

This is the dirty job of creative work for other people. It’s one thing when you can sit back and create the things you love for an adoring audience, but it’s another to work on behalf of someone. And while people may say something like, “I’m just not a creative person,” I guarantee you they’ll have an opinion when you put something in front of them. The more clients and jobs you have, the more projects you take on for an organization, the more you’re exposed to this type of behavior. It’s this repeated exposure that forces you to challenge your assumptions about how the world works and who you are.

At times you have to assume that you may not have the right answers. Other times, you have to remain steadfast in your commitment, because something in your experience requires you to do so. On each occasion, you grow.

That growth can be expedited through introspection.

Carving some time into my day to consider what’s happening to me ensures I’m being thoughtful with the application of time and energy. It also ensures that I’m charting my own course and not allowing others to dictate the course to me. It’s not always a perfect exercise, but I find that journaling every day is a good start.

There are many different ways you could do it, but I don’t place a lot of parameters around it. My journaling tends to take on the the form of freewriting, that is, writing without conscious thought.

Freewriting is a meditative way to write. When you’re freewriting, you simply let the words flow from your head through your heart to your hands and onto the page. You don’t direct it. Just let it be what it will be. You ignore the voice in your head questioning your every move. The point is to let the thoughts flow unimpeded and write them in whatever form they come out, and don’t stop to correct grammar, punctuation, etc.

After the words are down on paper, I reread them and think about what I’ve written. Then I put them away.

This act gives me a sense of what’s actually on my mind. I can instantly see what challenges I’m facing, how I’m feeling about them, or where I’m feeling scared at the moment. Reviewing this body of work over time allows me to see patterns in my thinking and identify areas that need work or areas of my life that should be addressed. In short, daily journaling helps me to know myself.

The Story of Your Life

When you journal every day, you’re telling the story of who you are day-by-day, bit-by-bit. Through the retelling of life experiences and applied reflection, I begin to draw different conclusions about who I am and how I want to interact with the world. I begin to shape my own course, and in some senses reshape my genes.

In your journal, it’s important to be true to yourself in the retelling of your story. If you’re scared, you’re scared. If you’re weak, you’re weak. This is a bullshit-free environment, and you should be completely transparent. Almost certainly it’s going to contain a blend of fact and fiction, but its heart should be pure. Admit when you’re the fool and when you make mistakes. The story should reflect who you are at your core, not how you want to the world to see you. This is not your social media feed.

What’s been lost in this world of steady streams of social media posts is the intimacy of being human. It’s rare to find anybody reflecting on universal themes of humanity or engaging in honest discussion. Instead, they’re cultivating their image. They’d rather appear worldly then be worldly.

Your personal narrative should originate in your heart. Your head may have to tell your hands to let it out, but it should not dictatie the story. Discover a little more about yourself every day and you will be on your way to becoming who you are. I find that it’s this continual act of self-discovery that is the most energizing, and ultimately, most satisfying part of life. When you can reduce the friction between your inner essence and your outer actions, you can easily overcome the residue of the past and even rewrite your own genetic code.