Memory lane is perhaps the most traveled street on the planet. Many of us travel down it frequently because nostalgia and familiarity breeds a comforting and calming reassurance. Dwelling and reminiscing on the cozy cul-de-sacs of our childhood, holding on to the gratification of youth and beauty, or replaying the glory of past successes can warm the heart. But reliving and recalling the familiar can also bring about bitter regret from past mistakes, disappointments suffered and even decisions not made.
Looking back is natural, but doing so is also dangerous, for the windshield of life is in front of us. Looking where we’ve been can inform, but at a certain point, the only way to ‘drive’ is to be wholly present and make our decisions based on what we encounter on the ‘road.’ You can’t look at the rearview mirror and the windshield at the same time.
When we look back, we replay the same tape on auto-repeat and in the process we get stuck on the road to nowhere. For every individual sitting at the corner bar telling tales of the high school championship won, there are dozens more ruminating on the game lost, the dropped pass or being cut from the team. The sting of defeat and the devastation of disappointment can occupy the thoughts and actions of many for a lifetime.
Looking through the rearview takes our gaze off the road and focuses on the objects behind us with potentially dangerous consequence. Addiction, unhealthy relationships and unfulfilling careers are just a few examples of the steep cost of looking back. When we look back in anger, are consumed by regret or when we ignore our past traumas and transgressions, tragically, history has a way of repeating itself.
Conversely, many also overshoot the windshield relying solely on the navigation system. In doing so, our gaze is perpetually fixated on the end goal and destination down the road. The cousin of preoccupation with the past is a devious mental obsession with the future. This approach is marked by the mantra “when I get there” (I’ll be happy, complete, or find peace of mind). But looking too far ahead, like looking behind us, is a dangerous driving trap as well.
Granted, it’s a good thing to know where you’ve been and it’s smart to have a mapped out route for the direction you’re headed. We must use the rearview mirror wisely and cautiously to occasionally scan what is behind us to make sure the coast is clear of hazards from our past. We must also plug our coordinates in the navigation system to make sure we stay on track and correctly identify the obstacles that might impede our progress along the way. After all, your car comes equipped with a rearview mirror and navigation system for a reason! But make no mistake, the real work is directly in front of us. Driving, like life, is about the present, the now, and what is immediate.
Recently, former NBA legend Kobe Bryant spoke about dealing with injury and what it takes to successfully overcome it: “The most important part is not looking at the finish line. It’s so far away, it’s like starting at the base of Everest and you’re looking up at the summit. That’s big.”
Injury is metaphorical of what it means to be stuck in the past or transfixed solely on the future. We all suffer injuries, whether physical, heartbreak, or profound disappointment. In assessing injury, many use the rearview mirror. But this approach is constrained by the self-centered and egoic notions ‘why me?’ or the negatives of guilt, blame and shame. Others take yet an opposite approach in addressing injury by pretending the past doesn’t exist. But as Kobe Bryant points out, a shear focus on reaching the mountaintop is problematic as well. Navigating only in the future can be hampered by the paralysis of fear (what if I fail, what if I never heal, what if I end up in the wrong destination, what comes after I reach my goal?).
Indeed, whether it’s the obstacles behind us, or our goals in front of us, they often seem to be ‘Mt. Everest’s’ - that is, overwhelming and all consuming. Many times in life, it seems we can only see the daunting peak down the road or the valley far behind us. In doing so, the blind spot ends up becoming what is directly in front of us!
Ultimately the only way to operate our vehicles is in the now. To drive the mile we’re on. In the addiction recovery world, they have a saying, “play the tape forward.” They don’t say ‘keep looking behind you’ or ‘make a plan to stay sober forever.’ Instead, the mantra is, ‘the only choice that matters is the choice you make now.’ In order to get there safely, we have no option but to operate our vehicles right here in the moment.
It’s clear that no matter what past sins we’ve committed or what direction we hope to head in the future, the work is ultimately about today and the road directly in front of us. While sometimes you have to put it in reverse and sometimes you have to pull over to check the map, when it comes to what to do next, there’s only one path - forward.