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The Power of Your Past

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Most of us don't use our yesterdays very well. With our cultural obsession with living in the moment, we neglect to engage in creative reflection on our personal histories. In The Power Of Your Past, John Schuster systematically demonstrates that our pasts are the biggest, most accessible, and most under-utilized of resources for anyone wanting to make positive changes. In contrast to other more technical, spiritual, or therapeutic guides that address working with one's past, he offers a balanced, practical and accessible approach through an actionable three-phase model: Recalling, Reclaiming, and Recasting. He provides exercises that link past events to achieving sounder interpretations and illustrates the process with inspiring histories of those who have experienced transformative results through embracing their own professional and personal pasts.
Schuster provides insight, encouragement, and steps for essential professional and personal development. Readers who follow this model will make progress in careers short on heart and meaning, overcome obstacles that other methods can't address, and make decisions based on their truth, not the versions of truth they have inherited and not fully examined. They will enjoy the peace of mind that comes with the knowledge that all they need to grow--insight, courage and persistence are the ingredients--is already within.

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Chapter 1: The Underused Past: The Price of Forgotten Yesterdays

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The movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind revolves around a clever variation on the amnesia theme. The central characters, played by Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet, willfully induce a partial amnesia to erase the painful memories of a relationship gone bad. It works but has mixed results. At one point, Carrey, sensing his memories disappearing, the good along with the bad, pleads with the doctor inducing the amnesia—“Pl-e-a-s-e, let me keep this memory, just this one!”

They are drawn to each other a second time, experiencing an unconscious attraction even with the conscious memories gone. Memories or no, even with spotless minds, their destinies are woven together as they get a second chance to go after love.

We are all those two characters. We have forgotten why we are pulled toward and pushed away from certain people and events. We attempt to have fresh, spotless minds when we move into our lifework, but a vague familiarity reminds us that we erase memories at our peril. Forgetting dooms us to repeating. We are destined to return to that which we must encounter until we fully absorb our core lessons.

 

Chapter 2: Good and Bad News: Evoked and Compressed

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In Dickens’s classic A Tale of Two Cities, just prior to the French Revolution, the aging Doctor Manette is withering from the many years of deprivation of an unjustified imprisonment in the infamous Bastille. He loses almost all of his memory and becomes a shadow of his former self. He hardly knows who he is and has forgotten his place in society. His only activity is to cobble shoes in the dark, a pastime to help him endure prison, and he can barely tolerate the light of day.

His family finds him and frees him, brings him home, and wonders what is possible for this shadow of a person. Manette’s daughter, Lucie, asks him to reengage his will for his own betterment: “I hope,” she says, yearning for the father she once knew, “you care to be recalled to life?” Manette answers haltingly, “I can’t say.”

Like Doctor Manette, how can we say, here at the beginning, if recalling our memories is a process from which we can gain? Let’s begin by understanding the important lessons we forget with unattended memories.

Evoked and Enabled, Narrowed and Compressed
You were not dropped into paradise when you were born. You encountered a world filled with the good, the neutral, the bad, the ugly, the funny, the tragic, the tender, the gritty
.

 

Chapter 3: Recall

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In the Japanese film After Life, a social-service office in heaven helps to prepare the newly dead for the afterlife. It is a specialized amnesia service that creates a recording of the one and only memory that each person selects to keep for eternity. All other memories will be wiped away. What a choice that would be!

We have a much better choice to make: to recall as many memories as we can, and to interpret their truth as they formed and shaped us. Barbara Kingsolver wrote, “It’s surprising how much of memory is built around things unnoticed at the time.”1 Let us see what we have noticed, and what formerly unnoticed or forgotten memory may escape the amnesia zone and become ours to own for eternity.

In the work here, we choose to remember. We choose self-awareness. We go back to the narratives that we do remember, we ask ourselves to look for new ones, and we start to view them all in ways that provide new options. We give our memories our best attention through the remembrance process, beginning with recalling.

 

Chapter 4: Reclaim

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In The Bourne Identity, the hero, Jason Bourne, suffers total amnesia. He agonizes over his high functioning with very select and advanced skills without knowing how or why he acquired them: “I can tell you the license plate numbers of all six cars outside. I can tell you that our waitress is left-handed and the guy sitting up at the counter weighs 215 pounds and knows how to handle himself. I know the best place to look for a gun is the cab of the gray truck outside. . . . Now why would I know that? How can I know that and not know who I am?”

Through and around the car chases and high-adventure sequences is a forlorn hero asking the big questions of identity and redemption—“Who am I? What did I do? Can I escape what I am and be something different and more?”

As we reinvent and express ourselves, we all ask ourselves similar questions.

WE FINISHED THE recall exercise in the previous chapter. It is time to experience the next step in edging us toward the truth of our potential, our values, our essence. Of the three opportunities we have been addressing—identity, potential, and self-direction—this chapter mostly focuses on identity. Here we continue to gain deeper insight by moving toward some forgotten, not allowed, or underappreciated truths.

 

Chapter 5: Recast

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Like many serious directors, Christopher Nolan creates movies that play with viewers’ minds. One early work was Memento, in which the hero desperately searched for the murderer of his wife, and did so with a huge handicap. The hero, Leonard, has clues tattooed on his body and notes crammed everywhere because he is on his quest for justice with a raging case of amnesia.

In a diner over a meal, Leonard explains the general limits of memory to a colleague he regularly forgets that he knows: “Memory can change the shape of a room; it can change the color of a car. And memories can be distorted. They’re just an interpretation, they’re not a record.”

Later on, alone, thinking about the wife he loved, Leonard describes the specific limits of his memory. “I lie here not knowing . . . how long I’ve been alone. How am I supposed to heal if I can’t . . . feel time?” A profound question.

IN RECALLING, RECLAIMING, and recasting, we work to feel time and its passage. Especially in recasting, we reinterpret and heal, over and through time.

 

Chapter 6: Answering the Big Question: When to Say Yes and No

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In an amnesia-themed story by Don DeLillo, The Names, a character describes the social fabric: “All of this we choose to forget. We devise a countersystem of elaborate forgetfulness . . . but the experience is no less deep because we chose to forget it.”1

Collective-amnesia themes are not as common as themes about individuals with memory loss, but they still show up often. A whole city or tribe or planet forgets its origin and its nature. As the story unfolds, the clues to its history emerge, and the shock of remembering can be a horror. In the Charlton Heston movie Soylent Green, our disguised source of food, due to planetary overcrowding, had become other humans. But if we are mindful of our memories, the recovery from amnesia may be a liberation and a link to the society’s truest, noblest nature.

Elaborate forgetfulness can lead us down paths that serve us poorly. We need to take great care to prevent our amnesia from forging a countersystem that works against what we are here to do.

OUR STORIES DEFINE us. Our stories confine us. Memories provide fuel for reinventing and rediscovering ourselves. Recalling, reclaiming, and recasting knead our memories for what we need to learn and what we hope to change. While memories themselves are important, remembrance, an act of amnesia-reducing recollection and reflection, is more important still. When we revisit our history as a more experienced and wiser person, we can remake ourselves. We choose richer interpretations than the simpler, less nuanced, sometimes downright mistaken conclusions of our younger selves.

 

Chapter 7: Using Suffering to Grow

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Near the beginning of Dickens’s novel Nicholas Nickleby, in a long discussion of memory and happiness, one gentleman says, “Memory, however sad, is the best and purest link between this world and a better.” This short assertion describes the power of our past for connecting us to our more ideal world. That is why amnesia is the enemy, and while it may block what is sad for a time, it stunts the growth that can come from working with the sadder side of life.

We have described the ways to use courage and imagination for making our memories a source for reinventing ourselves. In the previous chapter, we formulated mental frameworks for staying true to ourselves in the midst of past compressions and social pressures not to. And finally, here, we look at a universal human experience that can shrink us or make our path more meaningful, depending on how we handle it. We look at the experience of loss.

The biggest secret about remembrance, and maybe its biggest payoff, is that when we recall and recast, we turbocharge our growth by learning how to creatively suffer. Creative suffering expands our presence because fewer dynamics have control over us and because we enlarge our hearts.

 

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