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Reflecting on Time Present, Time Past & Time Future

As summer holidays are on the horizon, Lyn French (A Space Director) explores the timely theme of how we remember the past and relate to the future. Examples given feature images from our new set of Emotional Learning Cards ‘How do we live well with others?

At this time of year, anticipation of the summer holidays runs high. Most of us associate summer with the freedom of childhood, lighter and longer days and sunny weather (even if this relies on ‘photo-shopped’ memories!)  Managing our anticipations so that the reality of experience isn’t mood-dropping is a key emotional task.

We all have a relationship with time past, time present and time future.  Some of us focus too much on what is still to come at the cost of being present in the moment. Or we find our mind repeatedly returning to regrets or losses or times that will never be repeated again, all linked to the past. Being in the ‘here and now’ of the present moment is much written about as ‘the place’ to which we should aspire to live but it isn’t easy. Why is this so?

Looking back connects us with memories of our own experiences and of being with other people. Looking forward reminds us that we still have time to spend more or less as we wish, a thought which assuages any conscious or unconscious death anxieties. Being wholly in the present depends on letting go of our connections with past events and also to our links with what is to come. To live in the now means to stand free without our umbilical-like attachments to our own history and that which is still to be lived out.  In other words, we stand in a space without any attachments at all. At times, this may seem liberating, at others, it could feel a little like finding ourselves alone in an empty landscape without being able to hold on to the past or the future as a support, the kind of  ‘unbounded space’ where anything could happen.

Of course it is impossible to free ourselves of memory, that is, recollections of our recent and distant past, or to let go of desire which always signifies the future. The question for all of is; What does a healthy relationship with time present, time past and time future look like?’ A simple answer is that we aim to use the past to learn from so that we don’t consciously or unconsciously repeat it. We stay open to the new in the present and do not cling to the familiar tor ignore our current responsibilities by focusing too much on the future. We think of the future in order to plan for it and to set in place the steps we need to take to realise it.  However, we all grapple with our relationship with time. Perhaps we’re the type who dwells too much on the past or we’re one of those who reassure ourselves by focusing on what could or might happen in the future.

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Oscar Munoz Retracto (2003)

Our past is never forgotten but lives on in memories and dreams.  Whether or not an experience is stored in our minds depends on its emotional potency.  Family memories are, therefore, going to be given pride of place as they are rooted in the emotional. Oscar Munoz’s image Retracto (2003) see above, sequence of photographs depicts a portrait of a woman being painted in what seems to be water on a hot pavement-like surface. No sooner is the face traced out then it begins to dissolve.  This reminds us of the way people fade in and out of our memories. Some are easier to call to mind while others appear most frequently in our dreams.  Like Munoz’s portrait which shows the same face being reconstructed time and again, most of us have a fixed repertoire of memories which we bring out like relics of bygone days. Good memories might be just that – records of pleasure filled experiences. Or they may have been consciously and unconsciously tinkered with when we laid them down in our memory bank, erasing or airbrushing out any disturbing elements.

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Yinka Shonibare Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle (2010)

Summer holidays often call up favourite moments from long distant holidays. Yinka Shonibare’s Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle (2010) see above, featuring a ship with multi-coloured sails photographed against a brilliant blue sky, might call up journeys to countries or places where the weather is consistently hot and sunny. However, as Shonibare’s sculpture alludes to, the story is often darker than that.  Our memory does not function like a video camera, capturing footage of real events in real time.  The experiences we have are never recorded by us in mind precisely as they played out in reality. In families, for example, everyone will have their own story to tell about a particular holiday or event.  Some will recall what others have forgotten or even have no recollection of while others will remember the same ‘happening’ but have a different take on it altogether.  There is no one true representation of the past even though we can easily get drawn into believing our version of history is the most accurate one.

Some of us get stuck in what some therapists call ‘mind lock’. This refers to getting locked into unhelpful ruminations where we recall painful moments and examine them endlessly wondering what went wrong and why.  It is a little like returning again and again to the scene of a crime, trying to figure out what happened and who was responsible for which bit of the story. Mind lock can lead to simplified ‘all or nothing’ thinking. We might tell ourselves, for example, that ‘Everything always goes wrong for me just like when…. ‘ or ‘I was always ‘the unwanted one just as I was when…. ’ In such instances, we classify fixed memories as hard evidence and filter out all other versions of events which might offer a different reading.  Such self-assigned labels can then solidify into core beliefs and, without being fully conscious of it, we might begin to selectively remember only those events or interactions which confirm these distorted self-perceptions.

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Zarina Hashmi Homes I Made / A Life in Nine Lives (1997)

The opposite can occur as well. We might fixate on the good times and live out our relationships in our minds, tweaking the real picture so that it is not so painful. For example, a child who is regularly ill-treated or even abused might resort to clinging onto one or two memories of ‘the best time with dad’ and build fantasies around this, eventually believing that the fantasy father is the real one.  This survival mechanism may perform a necessary function as a brief ‘holding solution’ but if it is not challenged, the older child or the now grown up adult might find they believe their own internal view of their relationships even in light of reality-based evidence which gives an altogether different picture. Any of us can slip into this kind of behaviour, and, in small doses, it is not so problematic.  However, if we lose more frequent touch with reality and stay in a relationship because we have convinced ourselves it is better than it really is, then we do ourselves a disservice.

Zarina Hashmi’s art work Homes I Made / A Life in Nine Lives (1997) shows a set of architectural floor plans of houses. However there is a space left blank right near the top. One way of thinking about this image is to see it as a reminder that we all edit our past and leave out what we don’t want to remember. While this has its attractions, it can leave painful experiences undigested and unprocessed leading to repeating the past in order to try to resolve it.

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Navin Rawanchaikul’s Lost in the City (2006)

Looking into the future can also be used as a defence against living in the present.  Maybe we fill our minds with pictures of what  we hope is in store, projecting images as full of people,  places and action as Navin Rawanchaikul’s Lost in the City (2006) see above. This too prevents us from staying in touch with reality or with doing what we need to do now in order to create our future. Perhaps we all fall into soothing ourselves with thoughts such as ‘It will all be fine when… ‘ or ‘I know it will all work out as soon this year is over…’ and so on.

In the midst of summer, memories of good times now past or pleasure filled days still to come colour the ‘here and now’. Our mood might be lifted by a blue sky, a dazzlingly bright sun and carefully laid plans for an exciting holiday. Managing our experiences so that we aren’t creating ‘highs’ which lead to a post-holiday ‘plunge’ in mood is an important dimension of emotional intelligence.  Building a healthy relationship with time is like building any relationship – a work in progress – and one which relies on becoming conscious of our own patterns and defences activated in the present, learning from past experiences and making plans for the future which are both realistic and life-enhancing.

The images referenced above are part of our new set of Emotional Learning Cards ‘How do we live well with others?’ now available for worldwide delivery in our store. Join our last summer workshop on either Thursday 24th July 6-7.30 pm to learn about different approaches to using our Emotional Learning Cards. See more information and book via Eventbrite.

Written by Jenny Starr