One of the more indispensable words of instruction I have ever received came from Dr. Fred Luskin who was head of the Stanford University Forgiveness Project. He said, “To forgive is to give up all hope for a better past.” According to Luskin, what keeps people frozen solid with the regrets and shame of yesteryear is the lingering optimism that they might go back and change it.
The Chinese have a proverb to this effect. “Break the kettles and sink the ships,” they say. This saying comes from an ancient military battle almost 2000 years ago. A new tribal king came to power and immediately attacked his neighbor, surrounding the city of Julu. The king of Julu called for reinforcements from his generals, and the army came marching to save their king.
But the rescuing generals dragged their feet. So the march to save the king became a quagmire as the generals’ strategizing devolved into feasting and drunkenness. Finally, a junior officer man named Xiang Yu took command. Immediately, he marched his army across the Yellow River to engage the enemy.
On the other side, Xiang Yu gave his men three days’ worth of food and supplies and destroyed everything else, including the boats that had brought them across the river, their tents and sleeping mats, their eating utensils, and their cooking kettles. In so doing, Xiang Yu was sending a clear signal to his troops that they had no chance of survival by going backwards. They had to move forward, and they did, rescuing their king.
The way into the future is exactly by this decisive path. We must do the hard work of feeling the pain of the past so that we might be free from it. Then the future calls us forward, not because we have forgotten the past, but because we have made peace with the past; and the only way to make that peace is to quit trying to change what is back there.
Will we have to let go of some painful memories time and again? Yes. Will some things from the past haunt us longer than others? Absolutely. Will we come to the same river crossing more than once? It is likely. But when we do, the choice will always be the same. “Break the kettles and sink the ships.” Then, one day, the past will be where it belongs: In the past.
Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, pastor, and author. His newest book is “The Gospel According to Waffle House.” You can read more at www.ronniemcbrayer.me.