Julia T. Williams | Living in Past Tense
Julia T. Williams is a storyteller on a mission to help better lives through storytelling. She writes about all the things that go wrong and how people fight to make them right. Telling stories that matter while helping others cultivate theirs.
soul, storytelling, stories that matter, storyteller on a mission, stories to better lives,
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Aug 13 2017

Living in Past Tense

Yesterday marked 20 years that I would have been enlisted in the United States Air Force. On August 12, 1997, I raised my right hand and swore to serve and protect my country. I was honorably discharged, by choice, a couple years later. It didn’t take long for me to determine the military was not for me. I grew up in the military, but being on the other side was a different story.


Being in the military had its ups and downs. At the time I felt more downs than ups. Because I was young, my thought process was simple: This ain’t for me so I’m out. It was best to let that chapter close. What I failed to process then was that one day I would wish to rewrite that chapter. I can recall phoning several recruiters and making a couple attempts to rejoin the military only to change my mind. What was the point in going back? The military wasn’t for me, that much I knew, but why would the feeling of missing out constantly recycle through my thoughts? An unsettling truth is had I stayed, I would’ve been retiring this year and would have a check coming in for the rest of my life. I need to let that go, right? Can’t get that check now so there’s no point in entertaining it.

The thing about peeping through the window of the past is we see it as who we are now, not who we were at the time.

Seeing the past as who I am now, of course I’d make different decisions. It’s easy to evaluate the past from the perspective of who we are, not who we were. Knowing how fast 20 years flew by, I realize I could’ve toughed it out. Shoot, I’ve endured situations 100x worse than what I experienced in the military. I am not who I was and I was not who I am. My perspective is different. I am older. I am wiser. I know life in a way I didn’t at 19. If I persist in looking back I will never move forward; I will remain stuck in what would’ve, could’ve, and should’ve been. I will never be able to see what is.

We look back at life as though we’re missing out on something. Why is it that we want to re-experience the heartbreaks, the job losses, the overdrawn bank accounts, the betrayals, the disappointments, the failures? Are those occurrences rewarding in some way? They have to be otherwise we wouldn’t keep going there. Right? Yeah, I didn’t think so either. But, really. Rehashing what happened, retelling the story, rewinding the tape is a way of saying life as we know it is incomplete. And truthfully, it will remain incomplete as long as we deem it as such. Those situations that hurt us in the past will continue hurting us in the present because we give it permission. Nothing changes unless something changes.

The constant theme in messages for me over the weekend have been “let go of the past, Julia.” None of the messages have been subtle; they have been blatant pay-attention-or-else messages–from movies on TV to videos on YouTube to songs shuffling through my playlist. I am paying attention. You see, it’s not just my short stint in the military that plagues me but all of the starts without finishing. What if I had stayed in college the first time around? What if I had married him? Where would I be had I not moved from West Palm Beach Orlando Atlanta Charleston Columbia? (Yeah, I move around a lot.) What if I still worked at ______? Where would my life be had I stopped “running” when times got hard? What if I decided that instead of that?

Life is full of what ifs, but what if you are exactly where you would’ve been regardless?

Life is never easy. We make choices that fit us where we are and as we are. Hindsight will screw you up because life always looks different with access to the future. We change. We grow. We do different. We cannot look back and expect to move forward.

Who you are today is not who you will be tomorrow nor is it who you were yesterday.

Your past begins right now. The only way to make it look different is if you do something different. There is absolutely nada you can do about what transpired last night, last week, or last year. You cannot undo what has been done–that only applies in technology, not in life. You will never move past the place you fail to move on from. As long as you replay the past, the past will play you.

As for me, I’m tired of recycling what has been. I’m tired of living in the space of what happened to me and the decisions I’ve made. I’ve come to the realization that I can change the story. I can feel different. I can be present in my present. I can change what and how I think with a little calibration. The past doesn’t have to control me. Just like the characters in my book Parallel Pasts, I know that the past can only hold me hostage with my permission. When I’m ready for a different picture, it’s up to me to change what I look at. Well, I’m ready to look at a new picture.

One of the ways Merriam-Webster defines the past is just gone or elapsed.

What can be done with something that is gone or elapsed? NOTHING.

We cannot retrieve time. Let us put forth a deliberate effort to let the past be the past. All we have is now. Do something with that or else…

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  • Great quotes in this post. “I am not who I was and I was not who I am”. We are constantly changing and should not hold ourselves hostage to where we once were. As you said so eloquently, “Those situations that hurt us in the past will continue hurting us in the present because we give it permission.” So true! It’s amazing how we can continue to do the same damage over and over again to ourselves. We need to just stop it! This reminds me of the many stops I didn’t finish; until, that is, I decided to.

    I so agree Julia, “You will never move past the place you fail to move on from. As long as you replay the past, the past will play you.” WOW!!! So, so true. All we have is now. Great post. I could have just rewritten it by the many good quotes and statements you have in here. Great job! Good read.

    September 1, 2017 at 7:42 pm
    • Thank you so much for your comment, Barbara! The past will definitely play you when you give it permission to. Replaying, or as we call it in the psychology world, ruminating will get you in trouble. I’m grateful for the constant change because it allows for moments of reflection just like this.

      October 7, 2017 at 2:55 pm

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