Can you let go of the past?

The past is always in the news.  At the time of writing (May 2014) old wounds have been reopened regarding The Troubles in Northern Ireland in the wake the arrest and subsequent release of Gerry Adams in relation to the abduction and murder of Jean McConville.  Connected to this is the wider issue of the ‘on the runs’, i.e. Republicans who have (or thought they had) been assured they would not face arrest for any activities they might have been involved in before the Good Friday Agreement.  Then there are the cases of celebrities who have been arrested, tried and in some cases convicted of historic abuse, mainly against young women and under age girls.   Behind this, of course, lurks the shadow of Jimmy Savile and his decades of abuse.   Even the events in the Ukraine could be seen as the opening of old historical wounds.   And behind of all this is the even longer shadow of the Great War and its centenary.

But isn’t there a point when you just have to say enough is enough, move on, and let go of the past?  The problem is, the past may not want to let go of you.  Furthermore, when people talk about ‘moving on’ it often means they simply want to forget what they’ve done so they can go ahead and repeat it all over again.  In this sense, the ‘future’ ends up being an endless repetition of the past.  And in case this sounds rather abstract and philosophical, just think of all those people who always seem to repeat their bad and abusive relationships with every new partner they meet.  You can bet that every time such a disastrous relationship ends that person vows never to get into that situation again, to move on and let go of the past…..

But why does the past seem to exert such a pull on us?  Maybe we need to start by asking what exactly we mean by ‘the past’.  Essentially we are talking about memory.  By this I don’t mean memory or remembrance of the past.  Rather, I’m talking about memory as the past.  This might seem a difficult concept to get your head around, but in the realm of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy it’s crucial to understand that when people seek help they are usually having grave difficulties with troublesome memories.   Often such memories are unconscious, and the person may be troubled by a range of symptoms which appear to have nothing to do with memory, for example physical pains.  However, during the work of analysis it becomes clear that behind these symptoms lie memories.  Such memories are usually painful, and often linked to experiences in the person’s childhood.

It might seem, therefore, that if the past, that is,  memory, has such a pull on a person, then the way forward is to find out as much as possible what that memory is, to find ways to put that memory or set of memories into words.  After all, isn’t that what psychoanalysis and psychotherapy is all about, that is,  putting things into words?   Once it’s clear what the memory is, and the fact that it is (‘only’) a memory, then the individual can accept this, come to terms with it and ‘move on’.

Unfortunately, there is another side to this.  One of the things that psychoanalysts are well aware of is the fact that some things, some experiences, simply cannot be symbolised, cannot be put into words.  Such experiences can still be ‘remembered’, but not in words or symbols.  Rather, such memories can manifest themselves in the body, in ‘flashbacks’, or in dissociative states.   Sometimes these are called traumatic memories, to emphasise the fact that they relate to experiences which are difficult or impossible to symbolise.

And it’s this aspect of memory, the part that cannot be symbolised, put into words, that exerts such a ‘pull’ on the individual; it’s what makes it impossible for them to ‘let go’.

Does this mean that we are doomed to forever repeat our past; to never be able to ‘let go’, to ‘move on’?  Not necessarily.  To start with, simply recognising that there is an aspect of our memory which resists symbolisation can be helpful in itself.  This means you no longer have to waste time and energy trying to ‘move on’ or ‘let go’;  rather, it’s a matter of accepting, coming to terms with, and even engaging with, a part of our lives that can never be fully ‘resolved’ or analysed away.  Paradoxically, perhaps, it’s through psychoanalysis that it becomes possible to recognise the limits of what can be said, and what can be made sense of.