Our earliest experiences need not define us

“The berries are certainly big and juicy this year.” Eileen nodded. “Imagine how wonderful they’ll taste with fresh cream.”

“You have to know the past to understand the present.”

— Dr. Carl Sagan, American astronomer, writer and scientist

“The berries are certainly big and juicy this year.”

Eileen nodded. “Imagine how wonderful they’ll taste with fresh cream.”

Birget popped a plump saskatoon berry into her mouth and sighed.

“Delicious,” she declared. “I’m going to make saskatoon pies.”

The saskatoon trees grew in abundance around the old farmhouse. Looking back, I wondered if someone, years prior, had planted the trees there or if they had simply grown up around the old homestead property once the home and outbuildings had been abandoned.

It was summer — perfect, lazy mid-July. Fat bumblebees hovered over wildflower blossoms while dragonflies darted to and fro. The brome grass and clover was high and ripe. The sun shone lemon yellow upon the two women as they filled galvanized pails with the wild fruit, chatting at times, enjoying each other’s company, each woman’s fingertips stained purple from the dark, sweet juice.

Eileen paused occasionally to watch her two small sons on a blanket nearby. The toddler seemed content to play with his toys while the baby slept.

The scene I’ve just described is my earliest childhood memory — my “first story” and occurred when I was around two years of age. It’s a peaceful, quiet and safe recollection.

When performing self-esteem coaching, I occasionally ask people to tell me their first story.

I encourage them not to edit early recollections in search of a particular type of experience. If the memory was a happy one, that’s fine. If it’s sad or frightening, that’s fine too.

After they have recounted their first story, I ask them to consider how the event has impacted their lives (and self-esteem) and what impressions, beliefs or values were formed as a result.

Initially, I was surprised to note that many people had no recollections prior to the age of three or four years. I was also surprised by the varied nature of the memories and by (in many instances) how much emotional energy was still wrapped up in the memory and event.

With experience, I could almost predict (before asking the question) who would have an unfortunate first story to share and who would have a happy or empowering one.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that a few people — happy, well-balanced, empowered individuals — had a sad or even terrifying first story but were no longer defined by it.

One of the most positive, inspirational and “awake” individuals I have met in recent years is the woman who shared with me her first story of being thrown against a wall by her enraged alcoholic father. She was four years old at the time and attempting to intervene in a fight between her parents.

Feelings of anger, guilt, hurt and injustice prevailed for years and she suffered greatly. Though it took time and persistence, she was ultimately able to transcend her past and thrive in life.

Why is it that some people pass successfully through the often difficult stages of childhood and on into healthy adulthood, while others struggle with phantoms from the past? Why do some people remain firmly stuck in old patterns while others seem able to let the past go?

To understand why, let’s first review how the mind works.

Based upon our value system — what we have been taught and accepted as true — the conscious mind will conceptualize or “pigeon-hole” experiences as good or bad, right or wrong, acceptable or unacceptable. It’s a natural process and designed to help us to move through the minefield of life.

Unfortunately, most people never go back to the pigeon-hole, pull out the memory and take a look with fresh eyes. An estimated 80 per cent of our belief system is in place by the time we’re 10 years old and only 10 per cent of us will ever raise our awareness and re-examine those beliefs.

This early programming — events, experiences, interpretations and resulting values judgments — form the basis of our belief system.

Thus early experiences can (and do) have a tremendous impact on every aspect of our life. It is the foundation of our self-esteem and, depending upon the information accepted, can prompt us to strive, survive or withdraw from life.

One of the best means by which to access insight and knowledge is to regularly visit our repository of past experiences and look for lessons.

With the right outlook, one can “pan” a nearly endless supply of gold from the past. With awareness, we are able to glean tremendous insights and understanding and put those lessons into daily practice.

It has been my experience that, upon reflection, we will find that difficult experiences bring us the greatest lessons.

American columnist and historian Jan Glidewell once wrote, “You can clutch the past so tightly to your chest that it leaves your arms too full to embrace the present.”

Murray Fuhrer is a local self-esteem expert and facilitator. His new book is entitled Extreme Esteem: The Four Factors. For more information on self-esteem, check the Extreme Esteem website at www.extremeesteem.ca