Chaplain's Corner + Fixation on Past History
Sometimes we carry around the idea that what we have done in the past is a determiner of what we will do now and in the future. We become, so to speak, captives, prisoners or slaves of our past. A variation of this attitude is that if we have felt strongly about something that has occurred to us in the past, then we are bound to feel the same in the future. Cognitive clinical psychologist Albert Ellis (1962)1 considers such attitudes 'irrational beliefs.' Such attitudes can be subset under a superordinate automatic thought of generalization. (Burns, 19802, Morelli, 20063). That is to say, the thought that events and the way I respond to them will always be the same way and never change. Such attitudes propel a cascade of thought-behavioral scenarios that lead to inaction. For example, a person may focus on failing or performing poorly at a past endeavor, think that they will fail on a new task, and never even try to begin the new task. A functional approach to the difficulty would be to attempt to find a new, that is to say, alternate solution toward accomplishing the task or solving the problem. Many times individuals will simply repeat ineffectual ways of approaching the problem that have proved inadequate in the past and have led to failure. Previous failure becomes a vicious excuse to avoid real, effective problem solving.
Cognitive psychological therapeutic alternatives for those combating this irrational belief will include help to acknowledge that previous failure has occurred, and an emphasis on working on changing the 'present.' In this way, their future can have a different past, that is to say, through the changes in thinking and action planning that they have made 'today.' And, in the process, they will have developed a new cognitive skill and gained self-control.
The virtue of hope, a component of various religious traditions, can nurture and support both the overcoming of fixedness on past failure and the developing of new functional cognitive-behavioral skills. Generally speaking, hope is the expectation of affirmative outcomes for one's activities and the events and circumstances of one's life. In a recent article in The Hindu, hope is described as "the essence of human life."4 The essay goes on to say: "The tendency in a man usually is to bemoan his fate. Often he may be heard to mutter, "I am tired of living". Even day-to-day (small) problems snowball into major crises. This outlook should be changed and hope is the essence of life and a man should use it for good." In a similar manner, a contemporary Buddhist monk, Thanissaro Bhikkhu, shares this wisdom: "Insight into change teaches us hope. Because change is built into the nature of things, nothing is inherently fixed, not even our own identity. No matter how bad the situation, anything is possible. We can do whatever we want to do, create whatever world we want to live in, and become whatever we want to be."5 Common to Judaism and Islam is that it is trust in God that engenders hope. Rabbi Allen S. Maller points out that "A person who believes in God cannot become a pessimist, sinking into negativism, cynicism, depression or despair."6 Toward this end, we may ponder the words of Eastern Church spiritual father St. Maximus the Confessor (Philokalia II, p. 53) who tells us: "...hope in God engenders [objectivity], and patience and forbearance engender hope in God; these in turn are the product of complete self control...."7
1 Ellis, A. (1962). Reason and Emotion in Psychotherapy. Secaucus NJ: Lyle Stuart.
2 Burns, D. (1980). Feeling Good. New York: William Morrow.
3 Morelli, G. (2006, March 6). Asceticism and Psychology in the Modern World. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliMonasticism.php.
7 Palmer, G.E.H.; Sherrard, P.; and Ware, K. (Trans.) (1971, 1981, 1988, 1990). Philokalia, I-IV. London: Faber and Faber.