[Editor’s note: Every week, New York City’s own Andrew W.K. takes your life questions and sets you safely down the right path to a solution, a purpose, or — no surprise here — a party.]
Dear Andrew W.K.,
I’ve done some bad things in my past. Most of it was many years ago, but I committed a few more recent sins that were even worse and ended up getting me into serious trouble and really hurting some people close to me.
For the first time in my life, I decided to really try and become a better person. I’ve cleaned up my act a lot over the past six months, and now I feel like I’m genuinely turning over a new leaf. I’m being the person I knew I always could be, and if I keep my demons in check, I know I can live a good life.
The problem is, some of the people close to me who saw me at my worst just won’t let me forget about my old ways. They keep dragging me back and digging up my old mistakes, sometimes in a joking way, and sometimes in a way that’s cold and insulting. I desperately want to put the past behind me and be free of that time in my life. I know I made a lot of mistakes and I realize I hurt some people, but I need those people to forgive and forget if they really want to see me move forward. People don’t realize how depressing and discouraging it is to have to keep thinking about all that bad stuff. It almost pulls me back into my bad behavior.
How can I get my close friends and family to let my past go?
Forward To The Future
Dear Forward To The Future,
There once was a gentleman who was a severe addict. When he was under the influence, he tended to be mean and rude, and he generally misbehaved in the ways you’d expect. This went on for several years, and during one of his worst moments, his belligerence was captured on video during a national TV interview. He acted terribly to the show’s host and the people around him. He eventually cleaned up his life, but that TV interview lived on and became somewhat notorious. And our ever-improving technology gave it new and extended life on the computer, much to his dismay.
He managed to never watch the interview, despite hearing lots about it from friends and concerned associates. He just couldn’t bear to see himself in that state, so he refused to view the footage. However, after a handful of years of being clean, he found himself losing his way and falling out of step in his efforts to hold on to his integrity. At the crucial moment where he would’ve gone back to his old ways, he had a flash of soul-searching brilliance and decided to sit down and, for the first time ever, watch that video. He said it was the hardest five minutes of his life. But it was almost magical how quickly it shocked his system out of the dangerous direction he had once again been heading toward. He realized he never fully faced how awful he had been back then. He realized he had never fully faced everything about himself. He was completely devastated, but forced himself to watch that short clip over and over again. It was agonizing, humiliating, and nauseating, but he watched and re-watched until he memorized every word and movement and unfortunate micro-event in all its embarrassing detail. He says now that his decision to watch himself at his worst ended up saving his life. He’s even gone so far as to keep the video loaded on his computer and cellphone to watch whenever he needs a sobering dose of perspective and clarity.
Our past is our life history. That history is extraordinarily valuable, even when it’s upsetting and painful. As the old saying goes, those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. Considering that you’ve made some truly successful efforts to change your ways and overcome your past, it would be unwise to start blocking it out entirely, even though it would be nice to feel like it never happened. We all run the risk of replicating our past errors — or making worse ones — when we don’t fully fathom the depth and scope of our total experience. We need to wrestle with what we’ve done. Sometimes nightmares are not meant to be forgotten.
When our friends and family bring up our past mistakes, it’s natural to feel defensive and uncomfortable and to wish they wouldn’t remind us of those dark times. We can feel attacked, as though we’re not being forgiven or allowed to move on. But ideally, we really should try to go beyond those initial emotional responses and have the strength to continuously own up to our past and look at it squarely and fearlessly. Instead of blocking it out, we should tirelessly dive into it. We should see all there is to see in our lowest moments and do what we can to keep them present in our mind, even though they can make us feel bad. Those low moments are a means to help us live better than before. In that way, we should feel bad about our mistakes — not so they discourage us and bring us down, but so they might motivate us and compel us to rise up. It can be an agonizing process, but this is the only real way to ensure we take full responsibility for the lesser things we’ve done. Painful memories can be useful when we apply them to the development of a character we’re proud of. Remembering our worst allows us to work toward our best.
Making mistakes isn’t so bad. Everyone does it. It’s part of life and it’s how we grow. Mistakes are forgivable, but not learning from them isn’t. The biggest sin isn’t any particular bad deed in itself, but rather the sin of choosing to remain ignorant and irresponsible in the face of great opportunities for self-education and -improvement. It’s easy to make a mistake and feel bad for a short while and then just go on with life as though nothing happened. But that doesn’t mean we actually learned anything from the experience.
For whatever reason, it seems nearly impossible for most of us to reach our highest potential without seeing ourselves at our lowest and most deprived. Our despicable behavior should never be buried away inside us. It must be brought out, dealt with, and mastered, or it will destroy us. And what’s most interesting is that through the process of bringing it out and dealing with it, those same destructive aspects of our character can actually end up saving us. Our personal history doesn’t have to be something we dread or hide from, despite how awful it feels to confront it. On the contrary, it can be an incredibly powerful book of detailed teachings on how to live our own life correctly. We can see what worked and didn’t work. And the best part is, these lessons are teachings that we can truly understand, because we lived them personally.
There are many things I have done that I remain extremely ashamed of. But as much as I would like to erase them and pretend they were all just part of someone else’s life, they were my life, and they still are part of my life. I keep those memories extremely close and in front of me. I reflect on them every day. I force them to remain painfully alive. It doesn’t feel good for me to think about them, but it’s not supposed to feel good. What does feel good is knowing that I truly don’t ever have to live like that again. And the more I keep those mistakes in mind, the more I’m sure I won’t ever repeat them.
Remember, no matter what you’ve done in the past, you can always extract some sort of good from the bad, just as long as you’re determined to learn from it. Be thankful you still have friends and family that stuck with you despite your past misdeeds, and be grateful that they’re helping you perpetually face your history in a way that keeps it alive and useful. It’s all part of the strange paradox of the developing human spirit: You’re turning lead into gold. You’re letting your worst bring out your best. You’re letting your lowest lead toward your highest. Stay strong and don’t give up, even when it’s painful. That’s how you can tell it’s real progress. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.
More:Ask Andrew W.K.