look back
Lifestyle,  Mental Health,  Thought-provoking

Don’t look back in anger … but do look back

Lisa Fraser sings the praise of finding closure.

If there were ever a competition to add a new word to the English language, I would invent one to express the idea of ‘closing a chapter in life in a way which opens the door to something new and better’. 

People would use this term when finishing a work project; when moving on from a relationship; or, more broadly, when they’re in a process of growing from one stage of life to another. 

Life is a succession of endings: by nature, we’re called to grow and leave where we’re grazing for pastures new. We leave school to access higher education; we leave our parents to form our own family; we move on to a new job; we leave behind a romantic relationship that was not right for us … 

Or, the other way around, we are left: friends go to live in a different town; children move out of the family house; a loved one dies and we need to keep going. “To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often”, as the great English Victorian John Henry Newman put it.

Many metaphors illustrate the process of closure: turning a page; closing a chapter; leaving for greener pastures; sailing on to a new adventure…

 

However, these expressions fail to capture an important part of the process: one does not simply pull up anchor and move on. 

 

Train stations, airports and platforms are awkward places. It’s not just the crowd and the noise; it’s also because they are places in-between, which divide space and time. We’re hugging our loved ones, though we’re conscious we are about to depart; but we haven’t yet let them go… These are physical places of transit, which give us a clear opportunity to say goodbye, and go on a journey. 

We also have metaphorical places of change, when we’re between two stages of life: teenage and university; single life and marriage life; parenthood; emigration or relocation. We notice change when it is as big as these examples. 

But change does not always come with drum rolls. It can be progressive and deep as happens when we lose a best friend over time when they start building their own family. This type of change goes unnoticed, but the transformative impact, and the emotional response, are equally real.

There is support available to cope with major turning points in life: coaches, psychologists, or spiritual directors can help. We often turn to them for big life events, or when things have already gone wrong. But before that, there is so much we can do on our own to facilitate our own growth! 

Building the habit of reviewing our days, weeks, years – and incorporating this practice into our lifestyle – can really help manage change smoothly and steadily. It can also build the character muscles we need to cope with bigger changes when they arise.

The ability to review our life and close chapters neatly is immensely useful, both for personal life and at work. The Oasis song Don’t look back in anger, one of the songs most played outside of underground stations in London since the 90s, has often been interpreted as don’t look back, full stop. But that’s a wrong understanding of it: the problem is in the anger, not in the looking back.

At work, (legitimate) concerns about productivity encourage managers to place their teams on new projects as soon as they finish a previous one. Dating apps and mainstream social media push people to move on to a new relationship fast, as if adding numbers would multiply the chances of finding the right partner. In these two situations, we’re not encouraged to take time to review our choices and bring closure.

Mantras like ‘move on’, ‘keep going’, ‘faster, bigger, better’ can lead to exhaustion and dryness, at work as well as in relationships. It can also lead individuals to repeat similar patterns of mistakes. On the other hand, taking time for review and closure can make growth more sustainable. 

Firstly, an over-active brain doesn’t always notice what’s going on: we need to take time to realise what has happened. Stopping for a short while helps reboot and update our mental software: “Oh. This is where I am in life right now …”

This process of self-actualisation allows us to acknowledge our own growth, and to use it well. For instance, when graduating, it’s legitimate to put all our efforts into sending dozens of job applications. Actually, it’d be equally useful to sit down alone, identify the skills we’ve gained over the years, and think of an action plan to use them and maximise our chances. Having a clear vision of our strengths, abilities, and emotional state allows us to build on them.

 

One of the main reasons we’re not making time to look back is because it’s often uncomfortable.

 

Whether it’s a project review or a break-up, facing past shortcomings, lack of abilities, or missed opportunities is challenging. But acknowledging the truth, and putting words onto situations, is the main step to learning and doing better in the future.

We can, of course, choose to look away, and we will rarely be forced to face ourselves. But doing so is unhelpful.To use an architectural metaphor, the builder can either look at a wall as he constructs it, taking small corrective measures as the work proceeds, or simply keep adding stones to stones and realise at the end that it is crooked.

Importantly, taking time to look back and cool down is also replenishing. Modern life goes faster than before; but we can choose to react differently. We can be generous with ourselves, allow time to recollect, and feel the present moment, before moving on. Life is not only about the next challenge: it’s also about the here and now.

 

The main religions have even made the requirement to take stock a commandment.

 

Shabbat is the Jewish Day of Rest. The Bible says that “On the seventh day God had finished his work of creation, so he rested from all his work.” For Christians, the Lord’s Day – also of prescribed rest – is Sunday. And in Islamic practice, Friday is a special day of worship, acting as a break in the busyness of the week.

The practice of meditation – be it through prayer to God or simply self-reflection – supports the growth mindset. Wisdom emerges when we’re able to acknowledge the truth as it is, identify our own choices, and take responsibility for them. This process does not allow for self-deceit. It requires humility: we need to let go of our temptation to think that we could be perfect. 

The process of review and closure should also be rooted in compassion. One of the risks of the review process is to fall into the mental trap of overthinking: ‘what ifs’ and ‘should haves’ are dangerous enemies. The aim of a review is not to beat ourselves up, but to learn and grow. Therefore, we should also nurture our inner voice telling us that whatever happened in that phase of our life, we did our best, given our knowledge and abilities at the time. 

Even if looking back is unpleasant, reaching the stage where we spot the difference between our past self and our current self means we’ve grown —hurray! 

So, how do I review my life and consciously move on from a situation? Reviewing a slice of life can be simple as seeking to identify strengths, weaknesses, and lessons learnt. But there are also more targeted approaches…

The most useful support for me is the so-called Ignatian review. This was created as a religious exercise and derives from the 16th century Catholic saint Ignatius of Loyola, but it can be adapted to all faiths and none. In its bare essence, it encourages us to look back at a period of time (day, week, month, year), and notice what has gone well; what we’re grateful for; what could have gone better and requires improvement; and what we’re looking forward to.

 

Seeking to understand our motives is another useful exercise.

 

For instance, we can ask ourselves: what brought me to that time and place; what was I trying to achieve; why did I make this decision, how did I go about tackling this obstacle, and how successful was it?

We can also observe the different phases of the period of time we’re reviewing: what were the stages of this project or relationship? What were the turning points, and why?

Doing these exercises over time will make recurring patterns more obvious, help us gain self-awareness, and make the trends at play in our life emerge. These questions are just examples: the main point is to be curious about our life and question what we’re going through, rather than just go through the motions in a reactive mode.

Ultimately, the habit of reviewing and closing situations should be practical and lead to action. We won’t turn back the clock and change the past. But by looking at our successes and weaknesses with humility, we can gain more influence over our actions and live more consciously. 

There really should be a word for that …

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Lisa Fraser is a staff writer for Adamah Media. She has worked as a political Special Adviser, in lobbying and as a consultant, before joining the Civil Service. She is a board member of Catholic Voices UK, where she gives talks, communication training sessions, and writes articles. She is also a board member of the Catholic Union of Great Britain, and a member of the parish council of a Jesuit Church. She loves having long walks, visual arts, and reading books about history and politics.

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