As a writer, I find it unfortunate when I hear others say that they are not defined by their past. I often wonder at that phrase as we are creatures of habit with an insatiable curiosity of our world and its history. We compile historical records of cultures, empires, nations, epidemics, wars, and even our genealogy for study, however, we dismiss negative or traumatic events in our own lives. Some believe that denying any impact these events have had on our lives is empowering. Some believe they have ascertained some measure of healing when they can say they are not defined by such an event. Others simply cut out that part of their life like it’s a cancerous growth. I understand the need to extinguish pain, suffering, and grief.
I recently had this conversation with a man who felt that my activism was linked to some horrible tragedy and I should let go of the past and not let it define me instead of being an advocate. He didn’t like my views, specifically my feminism, and after mansplaining IPV (Intimate Partner Violence) as it pertained to a murder victim and how this woman’s murder was her own fault, he went on to discount all that I said. My activism, my voice, my advocacy were all discredited if I had suffered any type of abuse or trauma. My words were biased, my voice and views suspect and subsequently discarded. Obviously, this man was a fool, but it concerned me that there are those who routinely tell others not to let the past define them. Sadly, many will listen.
We are defined by our past and that’s an inescapable truth.
Those who are struggling with some tragedy will be inclined to listen to any advice they get without much choice in the matter. When our mental health is compromised, we may not trust our own instincts and will rely on others to help us regain the wholeness we lost to tragedy. We don’t take our mental health serious. We suppress. We downgrade. We rename things so they’re not offensive and scary. We conceal mental health struggles and depression from those around us out of fear, shame, and a need to be accepted. It bothers me that so many would rather ignore their past completely than consider the actual meaning of not being defined by tragedy and how this view could negatively impact the healing process.
In this world, we are all characters in an ongoing story. To deny your past is to cut out a chapter of your soul. Threads from the tapestry of your story weave together to create a unique design. Any one of those threads may be ugly, dark, and lifeless but should you pull it? Should you separate yourself from that thread just to show others how much you’ve healed?
Inciting incidents are never pretty, but they’re not meant to be the end of the story.
A story has many parts, but more often than not, the most crucial part is the inciting incident. Don’t censor your inciting incidents when they occur in life. Don’t be afraid to own them. Telling people they don’t have to be defined by their past is a convenient way to shame them into silence, especially where matters of abuse or injustice have occurred, (depending on who offers such advice).This counsel dismisses a victim’s experience. It gives the adviser the ability to assuage their own guilt for perpetuating that trauma or for looking the other way as it occurred. Sometimes the person offering this advice is actually the one responsible for the trauma. More often than not, this advise is well-meaning and offered to sooth. That doesn’t make it right. You may have no control over some life situations, but you are in control of how you respond to them. By weaving those harsh colors in your life’s tapestry, you have the potential to create something beautiful out of what was once ugly and dark.
In art and design, colors don’t exist just to be named, but to be transcended. Artists must go beyond the interpretation of color. A painting is defined by each of its colors and they all perform a function by adding value, shadow, contrast, emphasis, light, balance, and structure. That one dark thread you wish you didn’t see is doing a lot more than causing you pain. No one’s life is an image with one hue. Some colors may be muddled when viewed up close, but when you step back you see how that one color you hate so much, the one you sought to extinguish, is actually part of a much bigger picture.
Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy. ~ F. Scott Fitzgerald
I don’t believe everything happens for a reason or that there’s some master plan of supernatural design guiding me and my life events. I don’t believe a child’s abuse or a person’s rape happens for a reason. I find it rude, insensitive, and dismissive for someone to suggest that some deity had a reason for a person’s disease, their experience of abuse or violence, or the death of their loved one. This supposed reason is usually some lesson the deity intends for the person to learn. Bad things happen, and not because of the opposing forces of deities or supernatural forces. Tragedy is a part of life. These colors exist. It’s what you choose to do with those colors once they’ve spilled onto your canvas that makes the difference in how you’re defined (but remember what’s most important is how you define yourself). Ever try to erase watercolor or ink from paper? Not easy. If you try to cover up spills, blotches, or imperfections it can rip your canvas. Pull a loose thread and it can unravel the entire tapestry. The past can’t be erased so why deny its existence? We are defined by our past and that’s an inescapable truth.
All good stories have conflict and begin with an inciting incident. The character grows through action and at the end of the story readers can see their arc. These arcs are a work of art. They are paintings filled with contrast, sharp angles, stark lines, and blotches, unified through harmony and light and structured by rhythm and balance.
I am defined by my past. I am all the things that have ever happened to me and around me, and I refuse to deny my history or to censor my story but to learn and grow from it. I embrace my past, whereby in my present, I am able to write my future.
With special thanks to photographer Natalie Edwards and artist Desiree Edwards.