We do not truly fear the unknown. In reality, we fear a recurrence of painful events we have already experienced, seen, or know have happened to someone else. This fear of recurrence is experiential and understandable. Nevertheless, it can trap us in a cycle. The cycle can take us away from the future we actually want. Our defenses can trap us in the past by coloring our futures with the pains of our pasts.
Once wounded and not healed, we watch out for “wounders” more than we reach out in trust for helpers. Thus, the old axiom, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” This position, while understandable, is survival-oriented rather than thriving-focused, emotionally isolative rather than courageous (full hearted participation), and maintains predictability rather than the risk of experiencing change.
If our past pain dictates the future, and therefore, the ability to hope for a better/different life than our pasts, then we can only go into tomorrow through the comfort zone of yesterday—the known we have already survived.
By coloring our futures with a readiness for repetition of pain, we make life more predictable. We think the preparation leads to less pain. Hoping for a future that is better than the past is very difficult. It challenges us because a positive difference of change can be even more anxiety provoking than the past we have already endured. Hoped-for outcomes might seem too good; they might make us let our guard down. And in that uncertainty, we begin to watch for the “other shoe to drop.” If our pasts aren’t grieved well to allow us to accept the possibility of something different, we will always find “the other shoe.”
Outcomes that are better than the past become more difficult to tolerate than being prepared for disasters or difficulties that have already hurt us. We know we have survived the past, and we are not sure if we can tolerate something greatly different. So, we often “plan for the worst and hope for the best,” the saying goes. However, in that statement is a hope so weak that we look more for what we have known than the unknown that might be amazingly better.
Ironically, the safest place we know is the tragic, sad comfort of knowing bad things will happen and always remaining prepared for them through hyper-vigilance/anxiety and its subsequent control factors. We have survived a tornado, for example, and head to the safety bunker every time it rains. Our safety becomes our vigilant preparation for a repetition of the past. We live attempting to prevent something that has already occurred. We fight phantoms that were once real experiences. This dynamic is what we have for so long called fear of the unknown, when it is actually fear of past pains, many of which have never been processed or dealt with emotionally. Instead, they have been endured only.
Truly, we don’t have control over much of what tomorrow will bring. However, if we redevelop a growing trust in how we are created to live fully in relationship: (1) We can talk about our pasts as emotional experiences with others who can do the same, which begins to free us from the power of the past. (2) We can reach out for the “better” by being with others truthfully who are truthful about their inner selves, which gives us a recognition that we all struggle with living. (3) We can process our fears of tomorrow with others, which can encourage us to risk hoping and moving toward the good we seek. (4) And we can turn toward those others who are daring to hope with faith to talk about the struggle of pain that is in everyone’s future. In this way, we grieve the past. In this way, we move with hope, courage, and acceptance into life on life’s terms. We can do so because we are not alone, no longer imprisoned by our own defenses.
We are not created to step into tomorrow alone or by just commanding ourselves to think differently. The past is emotionally laden; therefore, the change is emotionally oriented. We must change with others. We can walk through our fears with others into the mystery of life unfolding into its possibilities—both the painful, which we will not see as dictators of our futures, and the wonderful, which we can see and feel and accept because our pasts are not the summation of our futures. We understandably fear the history of our yesterdays. We are to learn form the past, and integrate it into the wisdom of living. And yet we are created for the mysteries of our tomorrows.
Chip Dodd, PhD, is a teacher, trainer, author, and counselor, who has been working in the field of recovery and redemption for over 30 years. With his clinical experience, love of storytelling, and passion for living fully, Chip developed a way of seeing and expressing one’s internal experience called the Spiritual Root System™. To read more from Chip, visit his blog, or check out his books.