Through the looking glass

Sometimes I think that if it weren’t for time, we wouldn’t know what to do with pain. We often think about time as a resource—something we complain about wasting, or not having enough of—but it’s much less frequently that we recognize time as the great healer that it is.

This becomes especially evident when you seize upon a single event and view it from the perspective of past, present, and future. At each point on the chronological spectrum, things can look so very different!

Think of an event that was very painful for you at the time that it happened—perhaps a romantic falling out. Most of us have had at least one of those, and it’s never fun, to say the least.  With such events come frustration, grief, betrayal, even rage. At such moments, this is our present. This is right now. Being in the center of such a malevolent maelstrom of feelings and emotions can make it seem as though the walls are closing in around you. The past is all but a distant memory. The future seems distant, too, but in a different sense: you feel indifferent as to whether it will ever arrive. It’s not that you fear what tomorrow will bring; it’s that you don’t really care whether tomorrow comes at all.

Fast forward to a year or two later, when the event in question has itself become part of the distant past. Now, your present is vastly different than it was at that time. Who knows what has happened between then and now? Perhaps you learned a great deal about yourself. Perhaps you took a meaningful vacation or pursued successful therapy or simply found a new hobby. Perhaps you discovered new love. During the time when the present was becoming the past, you grew, developed, and changed. The intensity of your emotions and the reality of your pain have faded from that time to this. You may even wonder now why you felt how you felt, or how you did what you did then. Because we view the past “as through a glass darkly,” we tend to remember the depth of its significance even after we have mercifully forgetten the rawness of its pain.

And how does the future look, from the standpoint of this new present? Quite a bit more hopeful, I would say. Everything that was closing in on you during the dark days of the old present has receded into the background in the new. As a result, the future seems open, bright, potential-filled, alive. It’s definitely true (and therefore worth mentioning) that we can be held back by the past, and it can even be the case that something that happened to us once upon a time can keep us walled in for many years afterwards. Hopefully, though, these are the exceptions—the few times when the glass through which we see ourselves can trap us within our own backwards gaze.

Sometimes, conversely, the past can fall away in an instant, as though the glass is suddenly shattered and the future allowed to spring free. At those moments, when tears are replaced by smiles and emptiness by warmth, we are most thankful that former todays have turned into yesterdays and our new today is filled with the promise of tomorrow.

Yes, it is in those moments—the very best of times—that we are most thankful for the healing power of time.

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