Examining our past can help us feel more content now


Many of us spent time during the High Holy Days reflecting on the previous year. But what if we went even further back and took an extended look into our past? What if this look back could provide us with a new sense of contentment with ourselves?

In the book “Wise Aging: Living with Joy, Resilience, & Spirit,” by Rabbi Rachel Cowan and Linda Thal, the authors propose a life-review exercise that aims to provide a chronologically descriptive, organized method of looking at our life’s journeys. The authors provide specific instructions on how to map out our lives as if they are rivers, and to consider them stage by stage.

Mapping allows us to explore the path of our personal river of life – where it has taken us, and where it might flow in the future – and to interpret the stories of our lives in multiple ways. We engage in nostalgia, we look for and recognize patterns, and we work toward attaining a nonjudgmental relationship with ourselves. This new realization of our past can help us feel more grounded in the present and more comfortable moving into the future.

Let’s explore the methods of interpretation and their benefits more closely.

  • Engaging in nostalgia: Reminiscing is a normal reaction to stress and uncertainty. Often, focusing on positive nostalgic moments allows us a temporary escape from emotionally stressful situations.

Some experts, such as Dr. Juliana Breines in her Psychology Today blogpost about coping during COVID-19, state that nostalgia also alleviates loneliness. For example, remembrance of a past event may offer an opportunity to tap into pleasurable experiences that are tied to the people who shared these experiences with us. We are then reunited, if only in our mind’s memory, with our loved ones, thus strengthening our sense of connection.

There are elements of nostalgic moments that we can bring into the present and incorporate into our self-care routines – for example, rediscovering music, books or television shows that we enjoyed in our younger years; partaking in a food that we found comforting in the past; or looking at old photos and reaching out to a family member or friend to share memories of these captured life events. Allow yourself to revel in these rediscovered treasures from your past to help you through this challenging time.

  • Seeing patterns: While memories may jumble together, when we look at events across our life, we can see that just like a river, some periods of time joyously rush by, but there are also slower periods and pools of stagnation brought on by loss or other challenges. We are able to see what came before, what came after and what resources we were able to draw upon to get us to the next stage.

Perhaps these resources were drawn from within ourselves or from external support from family, friends or professional counselors. While some of these external supports may no longer be available to us, such as a loved one who has passed away, we can still draw on what we learned from them.

Additionally, it might be easier to deal with the unpredictable nature of life during COVID-19 when we realize that we have handled many changes and adapted to difficult situations in the past. We can examine what we were able to control, and what was beyond our ability to control. The strength and resilience we gained from working through past struggles will help us to cope with our current situation. (We encourage readers with histories of trauma to get support and guidance from a professional therapist for a deeper review of life moments that might trigger painful memories.)

  • Finding contentment: A life review gives us an opportunity to view past events through the lens of greater wisdom and life experience – and perhaps a more forgiving eye. While we cannot change our past, we can change how we perceive events, and what we can learn from them and apply to our lives. For example, maybe now we can see that the loss of a job led to a better opportunity, or the end of a relationship created space for a new love. These realizations give us a more accepting relationship with ourselves.

By moving through these steps, we may find ourselves able to reflect on the events of our lives with a new understanding of who we are and where we have been. These gains in perspective will help us to feel more secure moving into the future, knowing that we are stronger and more resilient when faced with challenges than perhaps we previously thought.

SHANA PROHOFSKY and TARA WATKINS, LICSW, work for Kesher, a congregational outreach program of Jewish Collaborative Services (JCS). Kesher is currently active at Temple Sinai, Temple Emanu-El, Congregation Beth Shalom and Temple Torat Yisrael. Kesher is made possible through generous funding by the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island and private donors.

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