Can we leave our past behind? Firstly, on the face of it, I wanted to comment on how strange this question is. Then I “Googled it”, and the search engine came back with 147,000,000 results! Whilst, at the top of the list were examples of essays (it seems that every psychology/psychotherapy/counselling course has this question on the curriculum), it also seems that this question has been on the lips of people (in many cultures) for a very long time. Right up there are quotes from the King James Bible, with one website quoting 70 versus from the New Testament (Bible, 2013). Interestingly, the Old Testament seemed to be less concerned about foregiveness, and more about holding grudges, and the justification of mass genocide.
There are literally hundreds of songs questioning whether the first person can “leave the past behind” due to some emotional trauma they have experienced at the hands of a significant other, and then others seeking forgiveness and urging the injured party to “put the past behind them”, with either talk of “moving on” or seeking forgiveness for their transgressions.
So it seems that, on the surface at least, experience (both good and bad) and then how we relate to those experiences, is fundamental to the human condition. It could be argued that, without our past, we would not know how to experience the present. If we were to “leave the past behind”, a person would have no point of reference for how to deal with not only their everyday routine happenings but to also have strategies to cope with any unique, significant or threatening experiences.
From purely biological point of view, even the simplest of organisms have evolved the “hardware” to be able to “learn” from experience. Our own biology “knows” how to operate in a particular way depending on circumstance, i.e. recognising danger, and the feeling fear resulting in freeze, fight or flight response, chewing, swallowing or spitting out food when it enters the mouth. We seem to possess the urge to perform more complex behaviours like forming social groups.
Evolution has acted so that genes and environment act to complement each other in yielding behavioural solutions to the survival challenges faced by all animals. Innate, or instinctive, responses allow animals to benefit from generations of natural selection on behaviour. The ability to “learn” gives animals tools to respond to local conditions and changing environments. Understanding the relative roles of genes and the environment in determining human behaviour continues to create controversy. Behaviour is best seen as the result of evolutionary processes that sometimes create, through genetic coding, behavioural instructions for animals and at other times create flexible mechanisms to allow animals to solve problems specific to their environment (Breed & Sanchez, 2012).
These characteristics seem to be “hard wired” into our genetic code, so at least this is a part of our past we most definitely cannot leave, as it is at the very core of us. Various studies have concluded that approximately 50% of our behaviours, even our ability to be happy comes from our genetic make-up (Lyubomirsky et al, 2005). Saying that, genetic scientists have already developed therapies to “cure” unwanted genetic mutations, so perhaps scientists will soon be able to amend how we react to stimuli. Small genetic mutations may in essence change the very core of who we are.
Once the controversial subject of genetic influence on behaviour has been put to one side, we then might want to start considering how our environmental and social influences, in particular the events and people in our early lives, have shaped the way we react or make decisions in the present. Although various psychological theories may dispute how, or to what extent, childhood experiences shape our existence, nearly all of them at least acknowledge genetic predisposition and, in particular the relationship with the primary caregiver or “significant other” in the developmental process. This relationship is core to most psychodynamic theories although it is typically from an unconscious urge to fulfil some innate drive; whether that be Sigmund Freud’s Psychosexual Stages of Development, Object Relations theory (honed by Melanie Klein), Bowlby...