By Dr Jyotsna Bhattacharjee
Ithink that most of our sufferings are due to the fact that we have this habit of looking back into the past with sorrow and regret. Of all the sad words perhaps the saddest are, “It might have been”. We often review past events and think that if only we had acted in another way, we could have averted much sorrow and frustrations. As you know very well that after ignoring somebody’s advice and coming to grief’s because of that, it is very irritating and embarrassing to hear that person say, “I told you so”. The implication is that if the advice and suggestions of the adviser were accepted and followed, the results would have been different and more rewarding. As Lord Byron wrote, “of all the horrid, hideous notes of woe, sadder than owl-songs or midnight blast is that portentous phrase, “I told you so”, the reminiscences regarding ‘what might have been’, if we had acted differently, do throw us into a morass of despair and we wallow in self-pity”.
A new study says, “Don’t look back in anger at your life—it may take toll in your health”. Researchers at the University of Granada carried out the study and they found that people who dwell on their past with regret and bitterness are more likely to fall ill in the future. Psychology tells us that mind and body are interrelated and they mutually influence each other. Mental worries and frustrations affect the body, and physical illness affects the mind. They are like two sides of a coin. Peoples’ attitude to past events, present experiences and future expectations influence their health conditions and their quality of life. Those who look at us in anger or sorrow, are also more sensitive to pain. It is true that thoughts of future expectations do not harm the health, but they prevent people from enjoying what they have at present. We may have several moments of joy in our life, but by brooding over the past we lose our moments of joy and consequently become losers in the present. According to the researchers, the happiest and the healthiest persons are those, who manage to enjoy what they have at present, while making time to learn from past errors and plan the future wisely. Christian Oyanadel, who led the study in the University of Granada, said, “According to what we have observed, the most influencing dimension is the perception of the past. We have observed that when the people are negative about past incidents in their life, they also have a pessimistic or fatalistic attitude towards current events”. Oyanadel added, “This generates greater problems in their relationships and these people present worse quality of life indicators”.
These observations indicate that negative attitude towards past events give rise to fatalistic attitude towards current events. It is a fact that the people, whose minds go back to the past frequently, cannot enjoy the present, which is “here and now”. Most people do have this habit of looking back at the past off and on. In fact most of us do harp on the past events and often end up as a bore to the children and as a cantankerous person to others. Negative observation of the past events may turn us into mental and physical wrecks.
Usually we think about the past incidents, not only from the individual point of view, but also from a general stand point. I myself have this bad habit of talking about the past frequently—like how peaceful life was in the past, how cheap things were, how safe life was and things like that. If I meet somebody of my age group, we discuss the past wistfully. These discussions are enough to drive away the younger members of the family from the room. They are not interested in our reminiscences of the past and they consider these talks as worthless gossip. They are interested only in the present and what it can offer. For them these talks on the past are futile and a waste of time.
Many of us dwell on the past too often, especially the elderly people of my generation. For myself, if I had the power I would have changed many events of my past. I know that these are useless speculations—Yet most of us often fall prey to the lure of the past. Regarding personal past deeds, I often feel that I could have done it in a different way for getting better results. Possibly that is not only my attitude, but others might also think in the same way. These past reviews often make life a hell for us, because we commonly think that we could have done those things in a much better way. If you happen to make a speech in some meeting, you may feel afterwards that you could have added certain other things to make your speech more interesting, impressive and effective, and these sad reflections take away the joy of your participation in the meeting. It often happens for me to my woe. And there is nothing I can do about it. Past reminiscences often put a damper on the appreciation of the present. Even if you are happy at present, your thoughts about some sad events in the past may banish the pleasure of the present and you would be the loser.
I may mention the story of a girl to clarify my views regarding past events. She happens to be the daughter of a friend. Apparently she had an affair with a young man. But due to some trifling incident they drew apart, and consequently the girl was married off to another person. Her husband is known to me. He is handsome, well-established and very considerate. But after the marriage the girl felt that she had made a mistake by breaking off with her boy friend. This thought made her depressed and due to that factor often misunderstanding occurred between the newly wedded couple. It took her sometime to adjust to her new life. But if she had not dwelt on the past affair, much suffering could have been averted. Her boy friend is also now married to another girl and apparently he is quite happy. So it is no use looking back at the past and mopping at the present.
In the research procedure in the university of Granada they had assessed 50 persons-25men and women, aged between 20 and 70 years, from a randomized sample, using questionnaires and time-orientation tests. The subjects were asked about their dealings regarding past and future, their physical and mental health and quality of life. The questions included: how often they should have done differently, whether they worry about not getting things on time, and whether they live life at a time. Apparently the analysis of the answers revealed that those who dwelt on the bad things that had happened to them, tended to be in worse health.
Misfortunes do come to people occasionally. Some tragedy might have occurred at some time in one’s life and it is a known fact that suffering is a part of one’s life. But what is the use of pondering over that misfortune in later life? After all, brooding on unpleasant incidents that happened in the past, does not help in any way. We just cannot change it even if we want to do it. Hence thinking about something that happened in the past is a sheer waste of time and it brings us only sorrow and not joy.
Time is a successive and continuous process. It proceeds from the past to the present to the future. It is a never-ending process. What is present now becomes past and future arrives as present. It is an onward process and past cannot be reverted to the present. Thinking about the past is a fruitless exercise, which makes you unhappy and even physically ill. Gita recommends “Niskama Karma” to achieve happiness. This is disinterested action, that is, one has to do his duty without hoping for any reward or favour. In that case there will be no scope for regret. It is of course not so easy to do that for people like us. Whatever we do, it is always for getting something as reward. Students study for achieving good results in the examination. We cannot do anything without expectation of some reward. But it is also true that most of our sufferings arise for not getting what we desire. Hence Gita’s suggestion is a way to happiness, though it may be very difficult to practise “niskama karma”. But if we can do it, there is no question repining over past incidents and having heart aches, because “niskama karma” is entirely disinterested and hence pleasure or pain is not connected with it.
It is an excellent procedure to do one’s duty without hoping for any favour or reward, Gita’s definition of “sthitapragya” is one, who remains entirely unaffected by pleasure or pain. I often think that those sages and intellectuals in the past were far wiser than us and they followed the principle of disinterested action to the letter. That is why I believe that they were calm, generous and happy, since they were not the least affected by success or failure. Most of our sufferings and unhappiness are due to our failure to get what we hoped for. Whatever we do, it is always with the hope to achieve something good. It is not possible for ordinary human beings like us to do something without hoping for any good result. Every action is guided by some motive, and all our actions are done for our own good. We work to earn money, students study to pass the examination—and consequently to get a good job. If we do not get what we desire we fall into despair. Wrong doings in the past often haunt us and we feel sad.
It is also very true that sufferings arise if our desire is not fulfilled. That is why Lord Buddha had said that desire is the root cause of suffering. If we can get rid of desire our suffering will come to an end according to Buddha In Bhagavad Gita also we find that Lord Sri Krishna recommends performance of ‘niskama karma’. One should do his duty without hoping for any reward and he should work for the welfare of humanity and that is the way to happiness. It is not that easy. As ordinary individuals all our actions are self-directed. We feel sad when we think about certain things we did in the past and which should not have been done. But it is not possible to undo what we did in the past, as the past cannot be brought back. So what is the use of feeling sad about our past misdeeds?
It is only natural that as finite human beings we often make mistakes and recollection of those misdeeds may bring much suffering to us, though it is not possible to rectify what happened in the past. Those past mistakes may have cost us a lot. We often think with sorrow that we should not have done that and this thought makes us sad and we feel guilty for that mistake. Sometimes we say something impulsively which may have hurt somebody and we realise our mistake afterwards, though it was not intentional. But the unintentional act may have caused somebody excessive pain. One small mistake may have done immense harm to us. But what is the use of repining over past misdeeds? Harping over the past does not do us any good, since past cannot be brought back to the present. Actually it is absurd to reminisce about the past. But we all know that sometimes when the heart rules, reason goes out of the window. As Agathon had remarked in “Aristotle Nicomachaean Ethics” that “Even a god can not change the past. The one thing which even God cannot do is to make undone what has been done.”
Edward Fitzerald had written in “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam”:
“The moving finger writes, and having writ,
Moves on: not all thy piety nor wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a line
Nor all thy tears wash out a word of it.”
I suppose there is none who has not made mistakes and who has not repented afterwards for that unintentional mistake. It is known to all that couples, friends as well as others often fight over little things. In the Bhagavad Gita Lord Sri Krishna told his friend and disciple Arjuna that anger, greed and passion are three gates to hell and so they should be discarded. It is very true that most of our wrong-doings are due to these three factors. Recently a friend’s husband died and I went to her home to offer condolences over her loss. The lady looked forlorn and she was sitting in a corner. I tried to console her, but she was disconsolate. She told me with tears in her eyes that she had quarrelled with her husband only a week back over some trivial matter. She said, “I would never have quarrelled with him, if I had known that he would not last long. I could not even apologize before he died. And it was such a paltry matter”. I tried to soothe her, but it was of no avail. She remained in acute distress.
That is the problem with us. We say or do certain things which we regret afterwards. Often we say certain vitriolic things to some person in anger, which we do not really mean. The moment the words are out we feel guilty and sad. But what is said cannot be unsaid. Anger makes us lose our common sense and we do behave in an atrocious way, which we regret later on, when it is too late. Sometimes we say certain things unthinkingly, which may hurt somebody. It is true that it was an unintentional blunder, but that does not make it less damaging. Hence I believe that we should not be impetuous in conversation. It may be wiser to think quietly before saying something unpleasant. We should be very careful in saying or doing something, since once it is said or done, it cannot be unsaid or undone.
I think most of our sufferings arise due to past errors. If we were cautious about our talks or actions, perhaps much sufferings could have been averted. But it is no use thinking about something which is already past, since it cannot be brought back. Hence it is singularly impracticable to feel sad for doing something wrong in the past. It is also true that if we could perform “niskama karma” or disinterested action as recommended by Gita, perhaps we would not have been unhappy, since such actions do not affect us in any way and pleasure or pain is not connected with such action. It is difficult to do no doubt, but it is worth making an attempt. In such actions past or present is irrelevant.
Let us then forget the past and concentrate on the present, dear reader. We do not have to brood on the past and regret over certain things which should not have been done. Only then we can be truly happy. We must realise that past is over and done with. We may perhaps learn from past mistakes and try to correct our behaviour and concentrate on the present. Don’t you think it to be a good idea, dear reader? May you always be happy. All my best wishes are with you.