Lessons learned from Alcoholics Anonymous can often be applied with advantage by anyone. One such lesson is captured in the common saying, “One day at a time.” Underlying this admonition are two simple realities—we cannot change the past, and we cannot control the future. Also, implied by this slogan is the idea that if we can clear our minds of feelings and thoughts that are outside of our control, we can be more content, and we can be more present in the here and now. Living in the present lies at the core of the currently popular idea of mindfulness.
Even a cursory review of the feelings and thoughts that cause mental stress and discomfort reveals that most of them are rooted in the past or the future—not the present. Persistent anger, perhaps better identified as resentment, is clearly related to events or trauma that occurred in the past. Likewise, lingering disappointment, regret, or unmet expectations can preoccupy our thinking, and they are all related to the past. Anxiety, on the other hand, is almost always related to the future. Similarly, worry and unrealistic expectations placed on others are focused almost always on anticipated circumstances or events—not on the present.
How then can we corral our thinking and live more intentionally in the present? We begin by recognizing that, although feelings are real, they do not always reflect the truth. This means that choices and decisions based on feelings may not be in our best interest. We must move our decision-making to a higher level within the brain, namely, the area of the brain where we engage in rational thought. Three specific steps can help us achieve that “higher level” of thinking and, as a result, help us live with more serenity in the here and now.
We begin with a thorough inventory of our feelings. First, we write down a list of every person, institution, or agency with whom we have been or are angry. We highlight those that we think of frequently because these are resentments that harm only us—not the object of our anger. These are feelings that bubble up from the past. But remember, we cannot change the past. As part of this inventory, we then look at our fears. What are we afraid of? What are we worried about? These feelings are almost always related to the future. They pull our attention away from the present and can even preoccupy our thoughts to the extent that we make irrational decisions based on the future, which we cannot control. We then share our inventory with a trusted friend, who can help us clearly articulate which of these feelings are seated in the past and which are dangling out there in the future.
The second step is to deal with the resentments. They must be released. We must let go of the past issues that have weighed us down. The key operative word for “letting go” is forgiveness. We accept God’s forgiveness for the harm we have caused, and we forgive others who intentionally or unintentionally have hurt us. Forgiveness frees us from the tethers to the past.
The third step is to release our emotional concern for the future. This is done by coming to trust God for the outcome. Beginning with the acknowledgment that I cannot control the future, we come to trust—have faith—that God is in charge of the outcome, and that God has our best interests at heart. Trust in God’s sovereign control becomes a powerful antidote for worry and anxiety. We release obsessions with the future into the care of a loving God.
Following this simple formula is not easy. It requires work, and it is best done with the help of a trusted friend and perhaps even a skilled therapist. But I challenge you to imagine how freeing it would be to be untethered from the past and to be accepting of the future. It opens the door to living in the present—without resentment and without fear. After all, reality can only be lived in the present—not in the past and not in the future. Living in the present opens the door to personal peace and contentment, for which we can be eternally grateful.
-James M. (Jim) Long, III
Executive Director and Recovery Coach
Samaritan Counseling Centers of Greater Birmingham
Samaritan Counseling will be at the Celebrate the Family Expo! on January 11, 2020 with resources for you and your family, www.birminghamchristian.com/expo