Past, present, and future walk into a bar. Suddenly everyone becomes very tense.
End of joke, in case you didn’t get it.
Really, it’s no laughing matter if you allow past, present, and future to walk into the barroom of your mind to argue, get drunk, and start a fight. You’ll become, needless to say, very tense.
Figuratively speaking, that big brawl erupts in our psyche when we’re preoccupied with painful memories from our past, or when we’re misusing the present to wallow in negative impressions, or when we’re anxiously envisioning a future laden with adversity.
We need to keep in mind, of course, that past and future are experienced by us only in the present moment. Writing 1,600 years ago in his Confessions, St. Augustine said, “There are three tenses or times: the present of past things, the present of present things, and the present of future things.” Because of inner conflict, however, many of us have a tendency to zoom around in an emotionally induced virtual reality of past and future, usually without any awareness of the detrimental effects of doing so.
The negative considerations and speculations that inner conflict dishes out compel us to chase after misery wherever we can find it. Many of us unwittingly jump into the past or the future—as we construe these “time zones” in our emotional imagination—whenever we get a chance to cozy up to some old hurt, negative emotion, or unresolved inner fear.
Digging up the past can feel like partying at the dance hall of the dead. “My mind feels like a Doomsday Book of past hurts and wrongs,” one person said. “I remember past incidents and emotions to remind myself of each failure. Bouts of depression soon follow.”
Just as distressing are hopeful or hopeless speculations about the future. As one young worrier decried: “I feel like I’m gonna be a failure and live on one of those rat holes working for some tyrant in a small office and struggling to pay rent. And I’m terrified of getting a divorce since everyone in my family has gotten divorced and ughh! I just want a nice life.”
Our mind, when frequently wandering off to recall the past or speculate about the future, is likely looking for mischief. Yet attention to the present moment isn’t the answer in itself. People troubled by unresolved emotional issues can be very miserable in the present moment. They’re tempted to conjure up the past or future in search of nostalgic memories or rosy speculations, trying desperately to escape, at least temporarily, the miseries of their present existence.
Here’s an example of present-moment misery, sent to me by a reader: “I immediately blurt out the negative first; I’m unable to keep silent and catch myself in time to stifle it. I just blurt out something negative or offensive. My favorite expression seems to be, ‘I can’t!’ Only after I have poisoned someone with my negative words am I likely to think of positive ideas or solutions. The negative thought or reaction always comes first.”
To resolve inner conflict, a person needs to zero in on the precise nature of the conflict. Let’s look at a typical inner conflict. On a conscious level, Jeremy very much wants to feel good, worthy, and significant. Unconsciously, though, he’s emotionally entangled in unresolved attachments and identifications having to do with feeling flawed and unworthy. Jeremy’s thinking is contaminated by these attachments and identifications. His conflict is fuelled, on one side, by an inner critic that harasses and mocks him for being identified with his self-doubt and, on the other side, by an inner passivity that allows his inner critic this “freedom” to intrude into his inner life.
Jeremy now bounces around in the “time zones” of past, present, and future, mentally and emotionally tripping over past failures, unconscious defenses, and projected self-defeat. Unresolved conflict itself comes out of our past, and it can easily keep replaying the past in “the present of past things.”
Defenses Cloud the Issue
Often the person recalls the past, as in the above example, to suffer with (and emotionally indulge in) painful regrets, wounded pride, and unhealed hurts. Other times a person paints a rosy picture of the past and sees the past nostalgically in an idealized manner. At such times, he or she is likely using reflections on the past as a defense. The defense goes like this: “I don’t want to experience all the misery that my life currently entails. I don’t want to feel devalued, unworthy, insignificant. I don’t want to have this disconnection from my authentic self. Look at how good it feels to visit old memories of when life was good and I felt connected to myself and others. That is what I want!” This claim, of course, covers up the person’s unconscious willingness to live in the present moment through old unresolved attachments and identifications having to do with feeling unworthy. It also means that, in using the past to cover up current unresolved issues, the person is less resourceful, creative, and intelligent in the present.
The same dynamic can apply when a person, speculating hopefully about his prospects, dwells unrealistically on visions of future success. “I don’t want to indulge in my failures, weakness, and my sense of unworthiness,” the defense now contends. “Look at how good I feel about my prospects for the future. Look at how excited I can get about taking action to make that future a reality. That’s what I want—to feel good about myself!” Typically, people undertaking new projects or opportunities with this artificial enthusiasm soon fizzle out and abandon the endeavor.
Living in the past or future is the experience of feeling unfulfilled, dissatisfied, and unworthy in the present. Doing so also represents one’s unconscious intention to go on feeling these unresolved negative emotions. One’s identification with oneself through unresolved issues is the inner default position.
Happiness is available as a specific kind of emotion, a richness of being, and, like past and future, it can only be registered in the present moment. If you’re eating a chunk of chocolate or sipping wine while dwelling on a memory from the past, you’ll miss much of the pleasure the exquisite tastes provide in the moment. To know you’re happy or experiencing peace of mind, you have to show up in the present moment and sign for it. You’ll only get a second-rate feeling of happiness, if you find any happiness at all, when ruminating about the future or the past.
To bring out the best in ourselves, we have to identify and clear out inner conflict. It’s not that hard to do, providing we access the best knowledge. I’ll now dive deeper into the psyche to uncover some of that knowledge. This concluding section explores an important element of inner conflict, along with the hazards of dwelling on the past.
The Tie-In with Inner Passivity
Our primary inner conflict is between the passive and the aggressive sides of our psyche. In psychoanalytic terms, the aggressive side (superego or inner critic) attacks the individual’s essence and integrity, while the passive side (subordinate or unconscious ego) defends. This conflict arises from (and maintains) a disconnection from one’s authentic self. Anyone who is preoccupied with the past or the future is likely to be disconnected from his or her authentic self and acting under the influence of unresolved, unrecognized inner passivity. Evidence for this contention can be found in a memoir by Joseph Mitchell, a former writer for The New Yorker magazine. An excerpt was published in the magazine in 2015. In the opening paragraph of this memoir, Mitchell writes:
In the fall of 1968, without at first realizing what was happening to me, I began living in the past. These days, when I reflect on this and add up the years that have gone by, I can hardly believe it: I have been living in the past for over twenty years—living mostly in the past, I should say, or living in the past as much as possible.
Mitchell was sixty years old in 1968, and he had been a prolific, talented writer for the magazine for almost 30 years. From that point on, however, he never wrote another story, though he stayed on at the magazine as an editor until his death in 1996. He began this memoir but never finished it. In it, Mitchell describes a vivid dream:
I know the exact day that I began living in the past. I didn’t know it then, of course, but I know it now. The day was October 4, 1968, a Friday. I had recently been in what I guess could be called a period of depression, during which, on the advice of a doctor, I had begun keeping a detailed diary … On that day, according to my diary, a dream woke me up … In the dream, I was standing on the muddy bank of a stream that I recognized, because of a peculiar old slammed-together split-rail bridge crossing it, as being the central stream running through Old Field Swamp, a cypress swamp near my home in North Carolina. I had often fished in this stream as a boy … I was intent on what I was doing and oblivious to everything else. And then I happened to look up, and I saw that the bridge was on fire. And then I saw that the mud on the opposite bank was beginning to quiver and bubble and spit like lava and that smoke and flames were beginning to rise from it. And then, a few moments later, while I was standing there, staring, fish and alligators and snakes and muskrats and mud turtles and bullfrogs began floating down the stream, all belly up, and I realized that the central stream of Old Field Swamp had turned into one of the rivers of Hell. I dropped my pole and spun around and started running as hard as I could up a muddy path that led out of the swamp, but the mud on it was also beginning to quiver and bubble and spit, so I plunged into a briar patch beside the path and tried to fight my way through it, whereupon I woke up. I woke up with my heart in my mouth.
This dream reveals inner passivity in Mitchell’s psyche. This passivity is a universal feature of human nature, and it appears to have sabotaged Mitchell’s brilliance and undermined the sublimations through which he functioned successfully and creatively. The burning bridge in his dream might have represented the collapse of the sublimation, the inner process whereby one’s inner conflict is resolved, if only temporarily, in creative success. Inner passivity is depicted indirectly in the horror and helplessness Mitchell experiences as his dream landscape turns into a river of Hell.
The swamp, mud, and water are metaphors for the psyche. The dead belly-up swamp creatures, along with the lava, are symbols of death, representing, in this sense, his fall from the heights of brilliance and the end of his sublimation. The fishing pole symbolizes his pen—the instrument of his writing and power—which he drops before fleeing. He tries to escape up the muddy path from the swamp and ends up helplessly entangled in a briar patch (likely a direct symbol for his passivity). This is a classic passivity dream.
Mitchell went on to live in the past, and consequently he couldn’t maintain forward momentum or even maintain himself in the present. When this happens to people, the emotional feebleness is very likely to be related to inner conflict and inner passivity.
As a solution, you can learn to alert yourself when dwelling excessively in either the past or future “time zones.” With some understanding of depth psychology, you can begin to track your thoughts and feelings to understand exactly why you seek to dwell there so much of the time. Present time for you might be so conflicted that you desperately seek some sense of refuge in the past or the future. But you’ll only generate a different variety of misery, along with self-defeating behaviors. Your ultimate refuge lies in conflict resolution, leading to present-moment harmony within yourself. There’s a lot going on, yet it can all be figured out.
For greater understanding of inner passivity, read my books, especially The Phantom of the Psyche: Freeing Ourself From Inner Passivity and Freedom From Self-Sabotage: How to Stop Being Your Own Worst Enemy.