Is it possible to resolve past issues?

Photo by Peter Herrmann on Unsplash

For many people, resolution of past issues is a major problem. Most of us have at some time had to confront old wounds and this is especially true when the hurt comes from someone we were once close to. Whenever this is from family or a personal relationship it seems that much harder to resolve. Because of this many people suffer, sometimes for years, even their whole lives. Is there an answer to this? I believe there is, but it involves understanding several aspects of the way we think.

Before going any further however, I need to say something that is important. Finding a way of releasing your suffering is not the same as negating your feelings, no one else can know how hard it is for another person to carry their particular burden. Everyone has a right to acknowledge their anger, their fear, their disappointment, their pain. The question that needs to be asked is whether you want to hold to these things, or to eventually let them go?

There are always mixed emotions stirred up by traumatic events. Those of anger, fear, disappointment, pain and loss are just five of the many that might be experienced. Because of the toxic mix of feelings, it is difficult for the mind to even begin to sort out how to feel. Like trying to tidy up a room that has been left in chaos, the mind says, ‘where do I start?’ And often we get no further than the initial question. It is all too overwhelming, and we are left with the frustration of not knowing how to begin.

Perhaps the best place to start is with the need to acknowledge that sometimes we do not start because we feel it is someone else’s responsibility to put things right.

This issue is summed up by the story of the man who was shot by an arrow. In the story, he walks around in agony with the arrow sticking out of his shoulder. People say to him, ‘why don’t you pluck it out?’ To which he replies, ‘I want the person who shot me with this arrow to pluck it out. Only then will I be satisfied.’

We have to ask ourselves whether we are expecting that person to come and remove our ‘arrows’, when, if we tried, we could do it ourselves and start to heal. Are we walking around in pain refusing to do anything about it because we believe it is down to the instigator(s) of the pain to put it right?

Consider this before you go any further, then let us take a look at those mixed emotions.

As I have already said everyone is entitled to their feelings, unfortunately, in many cases the body holds on to these feelings long after their natural purpose has been served. More often than not this is due to a lack of resolution either real or perceived. I can’t heal because it hasn’t been resolved, ‘they’ did this to me, and they haven’t apologised, or ‘they haven’t been punished’, or ‘they show no signs of remorse’. Here of course we are talking about whoever shot the arrow.

The person in pain needs to ask ‘am I still waiting for them to come and pluck it out?’ If so, it is unlikely things are going to change. Instead of focussing on the protagonist, the focus needs to be redirected towards healing without involving them. This means letting go. Releasing one’s grip on the overwhelming desire to seek recompense, which is understandably hard to do, partly when we are naturally inclined to want justice, and because of the sense of loss mentioned earlier. Loss of so many things. Loss of innocence, loss of trust, loss of relationships, loss of face, the list goes on.

I don’t want to just dismiss justice as if it doesn’t matter, so let us take a moment to consider what is the appropriate punishment for the trauma one has experienced? Is it possible to assess this? If it is possible to do this then let’s take this a step further and ask ‘if it was administered would it do away with the negative emotions I feel?’ It is worth considering this as a thought experiment and in so doing perhaps recognising that no matter what punishment one might feel like administering to someone else it will still not alter what has happened to you, and you will still be left with many feelings that have beset you, following whatever traumatic events you have experienced. The only thing that has been addressed perhaps is one’s belief that someone else needs to suffer for their actions.

It is an understandable reaction, and you do often hear people standing outside courtrooms saying ‘now I can move on with my life.’ Fortunately for most of us, our traumatic events do not involve criminal cases and each one of us has to decide how we feel about this. I can only say that I have found exploring forgiveness is a far more healing approach in what are less dramatic circumstances.

From a Buddhist perspective, it is important for us to understand the reasons behind another person’s behaviour and to understand that we cannot know all of the intricate aspects of their lives that led them to behave in a way we found distressing, but this is a subject for another day and I want to talk about the next step towards healing by focussing on ourselves.

If one looks at the process of letting go of traumatic events you may have noticed it is remarkably similar to grieving. Similar emotions, anger, loss, fear, sadness, pain etc. When someone dies, we know there is nothing we can do but accept the loss. We have no choice. We have to learn to live with our feelings as we explore them, through which we can eventually heal. Why do we not do this with our trauma? The reason seems to be the failure to admit it is over, and that just like the loss of a loved one there is nothing to be done but grieve and then go forward with a different life. Craving resolution often means walking around with that arrow sticking out of one forever. Unfortunately, there are even some who become so used to this that it becomes who they are, or rather who they perceive themselves to be. Look at what has been done to me! I am in pain! Whilst we might initially have sympathy for their suffering unfortunately to join them long term in their sorrow does nothing to relieve the suffering it just perpetuates it.

As always, when writing about difficult subjects I have to stress that I realise none of this is easy. I am not for a moment suggesting it is, but a mindful approach to one’s exploration of one’s feelings is a good way to start.

Think about acceptance. I am in this place. I do not like being here but in order to move on I must accept I will not get the resolution I desire. It does not negate what happened but why should I let myself suffer forever because of what someone else has done?

Think about letting go. Think about that arrow and whether you are still walking around with it sticking into you. Understand that you have the power to pluck it out.

Think about who you would like to be. Ask yourself ‘how would I like to feel’ and not how do I feel about the past?

Finally, be kind to yourself, always be kind to yourself if you truly want to heal.