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Yes, guilts often play back endlessly, especially those for which there is no redemption. A friend of mine suffered the tragedy of losing a teenage daughter in a traffic accident. That tragic day has played back in an endless loop in her head for the last 18 years. She sees it in her mind as if it happened yesterday. Mother and daughter leaving the house, the crowd of pedestrians on the pavement, the decision to cross not at the red light but earlier because there was a break in the traffic, the van that came careening down on them…

My friend suffered a nervous breakdown from the guilt of having taken a risk that resulted in her daughter dying while she survived. She has gone through every treatment her husband could find as well as many sessions of counselling. But the guilt and memories linger on and she lives in the past.

I know what it is like for her – to some extent. I wrote a sharp letter to my younger brother about a piece of property that both of us co-owned, a few days before he died of a stroke. To this day I haven’t forgiven myself for that letter and not a day passes when I don’t castigate myself for it. And this, when my sister-in-law found the letter unopened in a drawer and told me that she had forgotten to give it to my brother. Fourteen years have passed, but I still haven’t forgiven myself for having had those angry
thoughts and having written that letter. Somehow that letter makes me feel responsible for my brother’s death.

Yes, the past often tortures us. “It’s funny how long we spend on the past, when it is gone,” says psychologist Prerna Mehta. “When nothing can bring it back or change it and we all know that it is no use saying, ‘If only’. Most of my patients have come to me because they cannot come to terms with the past.”

It is true that everyone needs to heal from a painful or traumatic life experience, but no one can take a whole lifetime to get over the past, or use the past as the ultimate excuse for their own weaknesses. When they do so, they waste their lives and make things difficult for their families and friends.

It is not easy to live in the present, but we should all try to. We must just accept that life has been unfair to us or that we have made mistakes. We can think of the past – on occasion – but we should stop both living in it or using it as an excuse for the problems we now face. Similarly we should stop worrying about and planning for the future.

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