Salvage Yourself: Dealing With A Troubled Past

Are you letting the past hijack your soul?

One December a few days before Christmas, I set out to drive 140 miles across England. The weather was chilly and dry as I set off. This was long before mobile phones and even before the internet. Weather reports came after the 6pm TV news or in a printed newspaper. So I set off expecting the weather to be the same all the way, like it usually was.

This time the trip was in a Citroen GS Club estate bought secondhand only a few days before. Its jolly bright yellow paint and air-cooled engine gave it the character I sought. One new battery later and I was on the road.

The dry cold soon changed to sleet, then got a bit thicker. Gritting lorries appeared.

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A Mighty Crash

After 40 miles with speeds dropping I hit an ungritted section and pirouetted off the road into a ditch. When everything stopped I was hanging upside down with the roof at my side squashed down to the door-top.

The jammed passenger door and window winder blocked my exit. So, in pitch dark, I crawled into the back, and out of the side window, rescuing my bag as I went.

Standing in 3″ snow, a truck stopped and mercifully had a warm cab and hot tea. I will always remember that kindly lorry driver and his cab. It was a warm and golden-lit oasis of humanity in the harsh cold darkness outside.

The driver alerted the police who slipped on the black ice as they arrived.

Formalities over, the kind truck driver dropped me at the nearest train station. On the way, car lights shone from the fields in the blackness where they too had spun off the ice.


I arrived near midnight after a train trip and a 20-mile taxi ride, helped again by a taxi driver who agreed to drive country roads in settling snow. Of course, there was no anxiety in those days: we were all used to people turning up around the time they said. Being an hour or two late was normal when travelling cross-country. It was different to the second-by-second status updates of our smartphone world.

In the mid-1980’s a road accident with no injuries counted as nothing more than an anecdote.

The 6-week sojourn with a yellow Citroen was soon forgotten as I returned to the world of pedestrians.

Resilience — Back to Normal

No anxiety, counselors or therapists, just bruises. I laughed about it soon afterwards and two weeks later recovered my glasses from the ditch. That was the way things were: there was a lightness of touch to the whole incident that can seem remote in our modern context.

Angst, A 21st Century Problem?

A troubled past crops up a lot lately. And sure enough, life sometimes throws curve balls, tragedy or unfairness at us. It’s only to be expected but is there really more strife around today than a couple of generations ago?

We can’t do much about setbacks lest we turn gloomy, afraid to do anything or leave the house. But we can make huge changes through our perception. How might we process and interpret events happening around us, and to us? And how can we view the past?

Fifty years ago, those of us in Europe knew of houses with outdoor toilets.

We had grandparents who told of bombs falling nearby and were very lucky to live to age seventy. My great aunt had a single cold tap in her kitchen and many people remembered the arrival of electricity.

Life half a century ago offered much more to be sad about than today.

Salvaging Yourself

We all deserve some joy and freedom from past demons, to be rescued from lurking memories dulling our enthusiasm. A burst of joy in the morning, like those first days of summer holidays.

Let’s reclaim our feeling of unlimited possibility where the sky’s the limit. A sunny vibe, like no responsibilities or pesky chores!

How then, do we salvage ourselves to regain that jaunty, spring-fresh feeling?

How do we regain our agency from ghosts of the past?

Regret — The Emotional Trashcan

…and I would have gotten away with it, too, if it wasn’t for you meddling kids.
―Scooby-doo Villain

From time to time, our plans hit a pothole. Life deals a blow. One way or another, it’s not what we hoped for, life didn’t turn out as we expected.

So, as events slip into our past there’s a tendency to revisit them. Especially for significant setbacks.

And, all the more so now with the ubiquitous internet. Google, the eternal doomsayer, will suggest our problem with ease if we enter the ‘Seven causes of…’. Try it and see your own predictions.


Analysis of past misfortune fans flames of anxiety and depression. As if seeking an overlooked understanding would sprinkle magic dust to fix yesterday.

“Memories warm you up from the inside. But they also tear you apart.”
― Haruki Murakami

Yet here we are today. The world is as it is. It’s real and no amount of thought will change our history. Comparing today to unfilled expectations is quicksand. The more you think the worse it gets.

Feeling blue? Disappointed or let down? I use gratitude to displace sad thoughts and remember as many good things as I can. Or, I dream what I’d do if there were no limitations by imagining an amazing future.

Stress — The Joy Thief

Stress is a leading unsung disease of our era. Our unrelenting desire for worldly possessions fuels competition, thus creating ever more stress, and a need for ever higher incomes.

Doing too much and the worship of busyness creates time-poverty, another source. And increased debt draws us further into the prosperity machine.

Beware the barrenness of a busy life.
― Socrates

The answer to stress is less, not more.

Drive more slowly and enjoy the journey. That’s literal and a metaphor, for life too is better when taking time to enjoy it.

Anxiety — Overcooked Doubt

“You have power over your mind — not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”
― Marcus Aurelius

Ever tried to remember something you were anxious about in the past, six months ago, for example? I’ve tried and failed many times. Anxiety’s terrible, but it’s a habit not grounded in reality. That’s why you can’t win with anxiety.

It’s fear without action.

If the problems are real, take action, face them, and get through them. Or listen to loud music.

Here’s one to sing to yourself….

Trusting the world to turn out fine eases anxiety, as does trusting your own abilities. After all, you’ve made it this far, chances are you’ll get through the next set of challenges.

Presence — The Happiness Catalyst

Living in the present is a wonderful feeling. But it takes determination and practice to break the anxiety or regret habits of a lifetime.

If you’re burdened with non-acceptance of the past, there’s a pretty good chance your mind is thinking up passive aggressive retorts even now. “It’s all right for you to say that”, “You don’t understand”.

The Brits have a good one: “How dare you!”.

“Whatever”.

The stress habit is asserting itself if those thoughts occur. Wilful focus on the present will resist them. It’s one of the core skills of mindfulness and it pays big dividends.

So any time you catch yourself thinking of the past, imagine pressing fast-forward on the tape.

Look at something, anything and study it like you plan to draw it. Think about the colours. You’ll displace those anxiety and regret- inducing thoughts.

Whose Life is it Anyway?

Life in general is a lot easier than the ancient Greek era that spawned stoicism. Most of us no longer lead a life consisting mostly of work and can look to leisure, pleasure and happiness too.

But we can still learn from the stoic detachment. In a world with plenty of worthy causes, we can’t care about them all. Indeed, we’ll burn out if we try.

So consider tactical indifference; selective caring for what’s important. Try limiting your attention to concentrate value on what matters to you.


Dealing with negativity or criticism can seem like driving with the parking brake on. So I weed out the bad thoughts, breaking free from everything and everyone that makes me sad or feel bad. It’s surprisingly liberating.

My goal is a happy ending, not a life of fear. Peaceful enjoyment of here and now, not hankering for an escape to vacation or drunkenness.

Forget safety
Live where you fear to live
Destroy your reputation
Be notorious
― Rumi

Raising the Bar

Salvaging yourself is about reclaiming self-worth from past troubles, and from fears for the future. It’s about making the most of today, with gratitude and not always postponing fulfilment for the promise of a better tomorrow.

It’s about recovering the ability to walk away from a car-crash and return for your glasses two weeks later, right as rain.

Spending each day wisely is good for us all and those around us. Especially as we regain cheerfulness previously masked by stress.

Raising the bar and owning our future pays big quality of life dividends. So if gloom lurks then consider these steps and see if it works for you too.

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Steve

Writer & Coffee Drinker. Authenticity is the new zeitgeist.