The Chains We Revere

Don't let nostalgia for who you were kill who you could become.

Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.

Søren Kierkegaard

Your Identity Crisis Revisited

A few weeks ago I posed this question:

If you could observe yourself in the future from outside your own body as you look off into the sunset, reflecting on your life, how would you look?

Do you look like the guy you hope to have become?

Or the guy you hoped you’d grow into as a kid?

Are you that superhero in the sunset? The fit, strong, good-natured Dad/husband/businessman/factory worker/whatever who’s well-respected and looks like he can handle himself in a fight?

If we’re honest, those might not be the words every guy would use, but that sure is the picture most guys aspired to at one point or another.

And last week, I said that if you’re utterly failing in every attempt to make any move in that direction, it’s because you’re focusing on the wrong thing. You don’t need steps to your goal. You need to assume the identity of the person you want to become.

That’s not so easy, however. Talking about it is nice. But just telling you to do it and then saying, “Get after it,” without any word as to how would be useless.

In a week or two, I’m going to lay out strategies to help you start becoming that “superhero” by writing your own origin story.

But first:

You can’t take those steps and put the strategies into action without ditching one major hang-up.

An Enlightening Thought from an Enlightenment Thinker

Voltaire once wrote, “It is difficult to free fools from the chains they revere.”

My guess is this was written in reference to religious believers. Given some of the other things Voltaire wrote about religion and religious belief, it would make sense. He once famously said that, “One hundred years from today, the Bible will be a forgotten book.” Ironically, his homestead was used to print bibles for one hundred years after his death.

Despite the failure of the latter insight, Voltaire absolutely nailed the human psyche when it comes to our hang-ups. It happens over, and over, and over. We hang on to things, feelings, memories, or beliefs that are somehow precious or that we hold to be both true and important.

Sometimes, though, we’re dead wrong in our analysis. And when we are, those beloved ideals prevent the formation of a new, better reality.

Looking Back

To understand this, think back to the time in your life you felt the most successful you’ve ever been. Could be in your career, relationships, fitness, whatever.

How quickly were you able to think of that moment?

It was quick, wasn’t it? So quick, it’s almost like you’ve thought about this before.

Few of us ever feel like this is the moment when everything’s coming together. Most of us pine for those days of the past when we were more idealistic, enthusiastic, and full of vitality. We say phrases like, “If I could just get back to…” and think that somehow life would be better if we could do that all again, now.

But that’s just not true.

The truth is, your idealized beliefs about the past are the chains you revere. Holding on to them as a picture of what you need to achieve again is foolish. The sooner you realize this, the better:

Your life will never be what it was before. And that can be a good thing, if you let it.

Looking Forward

Here’s the reality of your idealized past. It may truly have been a time of total success for you. But at that time, the world was a different place. The people around you were different people. Your opportunities were different. The entire milieu of your existence was different. And you were a different you.

Maybe you were 20- years younger. Maybe Carter, or Reagan, or Bush Sr., or Clinton, or Bush Jr., or Obama was president. Maybe you’ve had kids since then, owned three homes, been through a divorce, changed careers, been in a car accident. The world, your circumstances, and you have changed.

And that’s a good thing, because your old self couldn’t stay “ideal” through all the changes. It wasn’t resilient enough to stay the same through the difficulties. And it wasn’t as good as it would become through the influence of positive events. So, it turns out that ideal self wasn’t that ideal after all.

You’ve got to stop looking back to look forward.

A Brave New You

As Chris Helder writes, “The truth is in the sunset.” When life’s almost done and you’re looking out to the horizon, there will only be one reality upon which to reflect. Your life will have gone this way, or that. At that point, it’s all in the past and nothing will change.

But your sunset is in the future. There’s still time to become who you need to be. If that’s going to happen, then you need to embrace this truth:

The past is the past, and you don’t need to be that person again.

Your past experiences, no matter how good, were not the point. The lessons they taught you, and how those lessons shape you, are. You can pine for the experiences and wallow in “I used to”, or learn from the lessons and say, “I am”. The choice is yours.

Quit being Voltaire’s Fool. Break the chains you revere. Learn from your idealized past, but let go of it. Look to the future.

It’s time to become something more.

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