Recently the question was posed to me, “If you could say anything to your past self, what would it be?” So, I thought about it. And, I struggled to come up with anything. Because in all honesty, I don’t see the point in doing it. If given the chance, I don’t think I would go back and try to mess with my past self. I’m not sure it would make a difference.
But, after some more thought, what I realized was, that more than it really mattering IF I actually would go back and say anything to my past self; considering what I might say to my past self actually had a great deal of value for my present self. Why? Because trying to look back and think what I might say is an exercise in remembrance, in reflecting on my life.
Immediately questions arise like:
- Would I change anything about my past?
- What advice and help did I receive in the past that brought me to this point I’m at now? Will it help me going forward?
- What growing experiences did I have because I had to live by faith without frequent peeks at my future or a phone call from the future?
- Do I see the hand of God in the path my life has taken?
- If everything had gone the way I had planned or expected, would I be the same person?
- What truths did I cling to then? Are they the same ones I cling to now? Are they the same ones I should cling to in the future?
It turns out, there is an incredible benefit to remembering our past and reflecting on the course our life has taken, if we do it properly.
In the scriptures, prophets repeatedly encourage people to reflect back on their lives and remember (and acknowledge) the ways in which God has blessed and preserved them, as well as their forbears. This remembrance of our lives is an exercise in gratitude.
In Ephesians 2, Paul reminds the members of Ephesus to remember what they were like before the grace of God touched their lives. He encourages them to remember when they were without Christ and how their life and hope has changed since becoming converted to Christianity. This remembrance is not only an exercise in gratitude, but it’s a chance for the Holy Spirit to reaffirm our testimony.
Joseph Smith recorded that after reading James 1:5 that the message of the verse hit him so hard that he reflected on it again and again (JS-H 1:12). Many of us, like Joseph, have heard quotes, read scriptures, heard sermons, or recited prayers that have entered our hearts with such force that we find ourselves coming back to those messages again and again and again…often being taught even deeper truths each time we reflect on them. This type of remembrance is not only the reaffirmation of our testimony of a truth we’ve been taught, it’s a reflection that invites the Holy Spirit to teach us more about a truth we are willing to learn more about. It’s in invitation to be taught.
Pillar of Salt
Conversely, in the scriptures we also have accounts of people reflecting back on the past in a manner that breeds personal destruction. Lot’s wife, when she looked back at the destruction of Sodom (where her home was) turned into a pillar of salt. Or, in more blunt words, she was burned up by the destruction. She didn’t simply look back, she ran back toward the city and to her own death. Lot tried to lead her out of it to a life of righteousness, and she didn’t truly want that, so even though the city was going to be destroyed, she had rather run back and get burned up with it. Her reflection led her to run head first into self-destruction.
Often, when many of us reflect back on the past we do so with longing for things that aren’t beneficial to our present. We create sentimental trophies out of old romances, past friendships, once promising athletic careers, and other such childhood and teenage fodder. We glorify these images so much in our minds that it builds regret for our present location in life. We begin to resent and discredit all that we have built in our current lives by running full-force back to the imaginary happiness we truly believe we missed out on. We, like Lot’s wife, run head first into self-destruction.
Others, when they reflect back or dwell on their past mistakes they lean so hard into shaming and mentally destroying themselves, that they can’t press forward successfully in the present. As they look back at their lives and think what they might say to their past selves they use the opportunity instead to punish themselves more. To beat themselves up more. But, they aren’t beating up their past self. They are beating up their present self, creating self-destruction in the present.
God Wants Us to Reflect to Propel Us Forward
So, now I put the question to you. What would you go back and tell your past self, if you could? That past self could be the self of yesterday, a week ago, a month ago, a year ago, five years ago, or even twenty years ago. Would you tell all these selves the same thing? Why, or why not?
Now, here’s another question. Now that several things have crossed your mind about what you would tell your past self. How do these words of wisdom help you in the present? What would you tell your future self?
It turns out God has a primary purpose for self-reflection and remembrance. But, they are illustrated most powerfully in the man called Alma-the-younger.
Interestingly, Alma-the-younger (Jr.)’s father had been a Christian rebel when he was a young man. But, then he got himself straightened out. So, what happens? Well, his son, Alma Jr., decides to rebel also and run around trying to destroy Christianity (the church). Alma Jr. and his friends (the sons of the king, named Mosiah) describe themselves as the vilest of sinners (Mosiah 28:4). During their wicked streak an angel appears to them and tells them to repent or be destroyed.
These words hold particular hold upon Alma Jr.’s heart. He falls to the ground and is tormented with what he describes as “the pains of hell” for up to a day or two. The things causing his hellish pain? Well, they are his reflections on his wicked past.
And then, amidst Alma Jr.’s reflections he remembers hearing his father (Alma Sr.) preaching about Jesus Christ who atones for the sins for the world. That there is forgiveness. This reflection leads him to repent. He calls out in his anguish to Christ and asks to be saved. He is then suddenly filled with peace even greater than the hellish pain that he was being tormented with. He says, “And now, behold…I could remember my pains no more; yea, I was harrowed up by the memory of my sins no more” (Alma 36:13,19).
Notice, he doesn’t say that he can’t remember his sins. He can. But what he can no longer remember is the hellish-pain, guilt, misery, and suffering that he was under because of his recognition of his sins.
Alma Jr.’s reflection back on his past had the potential to propel him forward. First he reflected on his sins and was nearly overwhelmed by his vivid understanding of just how rotten he’d been. But, then, so very important, is that second, he reflected on what he’d been taught about Christ and in faith he sought Christ. What happened then? He found peace in the grace of Christ and was able to be free from the pain of his sins. Certainly he could still remember them, but they didn’t torment him anymore. Now, he was free to use those memories to press forward…to become better.
Out of this topic, I have come to the conclusion that the best way for us to reflect upon the past is to do so with God’s help. If we are to look back and reflect in a way that has the greatest potential to propel us forward, then we should look back with the help of a being that can see our past as clearly as He can see our present and our future.
Consider questions like:
- God, is there anything in my past that I still need to deal with and resolve?
- God, is there a time in my past where you were with me but I didn’t realize it back then? Show me so I can find peace now.
- God, can you help me to remember the times your grace carried me through, or your Holy Spirit taught me truth so that my current testimony can be re-affirmed?
- God, is there anything more you would teach me about this truth that I already love so much?
- God, are there any truths I’m overlooking in my past that I need to understand so I can receive the future you have in store for me?
I’m Finally Going to Answer the Question
I have to be honest. I don’t think I would go back and tell my past self much of anything. But, if I did, it would sound something like this:
Don’t waste any mental or emotional effort on the fact that it simply isn’t your nature to care about being popular or fitting in. You never do seek out those things, but you will try to waste a lot of effort on whether or not it’s important. So, don’t.
Next, God has given all of us bodies. Mortal genetics play their part. Be grateful for the body you have been given. Don’t waste another second beating yourself up because you weren’t born four-to-six inches shorter, four-to-six inches narrower, or 40-60 lbs lighter. Your body is the power God has given you to do His work. Take glory in the fact that you can accomplish it with the body you’ve got.
You were right. You’ll keep being right. You’ll keep trusting in God. You’re going to make it.