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Repaying the Past

Twelve Step programs tell addicts to make amends. Many religious traditions admonish adherents in the same vein. Good parents and judges recognize that justice is better served with restitution and pleas for forgiveness than mere retribution. With so much wisdom advising us to clean up the past, pay for our mistakes, and ask forgiveness, we can be sure there is something healing about doing so.

But it’s not always easy. The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous tell us to “make direct amends [to those we’ve harmed], except when to do so would injure them or others.” AA literature discusses touchy situations, like whether to tell a spouse about infidelity long after the affair has ended, or to reveal financial irregularities to an employer knowing that the resultant job loss will damage one’s children.

These issues need to be decided on a case-by-case basis according to what’s best for all the affected parties. I am not about to take on these complexities.

But there is another kind of dilemma that often arises: What about all those people we’ve harmed in the past who can no longer be reached? Many have died, others have changed names, moved away, or can’t be found. How do we make amends without talking to the injured party?

One possibility is to rectify these past errors by what is known in AA as “living amends,” which simply means changing. By becoming better people, and breaking the negative patterns of the past, we can honor those we have harmed by learning from our mistakes.

Another approach, however, is to see how one’s past actions have led to consequences, and then accept those outcomes with grace. In this way, we live our own cycle of wrongdoing, retribution, recognition, and restoration.

Using myself as an example, I can see how my own past choices led to many of the current situations that bother me. Of course, fate played a role in some of them, but so did my own weaknesses. The arthritis in my neck is partially the result of my genetic background, and not my actions, so the loss of my surgical career can’t be entirely laid at my own door. Still, I knew about my family history going into surgical training, and I started having pain early on. If I’d listened to my deeper wisdom and my own body, I’d have chosen a more sustainable career.

My traumatic upbringing was outside my control, but how I reacted to it was at least somewhat under my influence. If I feel isolated now because fearful introversion long kept me from forming attachments, I can partly blame my childhood, but I also need to recognize that my personality was always my own responsibility. If I’d worked harder to be more outgoing, I’d have built more relationships.

The Eastern religions speak of karma as a historical force that transcends death and birth. According to traditional interpretations, our fate is determined by our behavior in previous lifetimes. This extreme degree of cause and effect would be difficult to prove in the current plane of existence. But what’s not hard to establish is that actions have consequences. As we get older, much of our life circumstance can be traced to choices of earlier years.

In young adulthood we can perhaps blame our parents for our difficulties, but that gets less and less tenable as we move through middle age and into later life. At some point, we have to accept that we have shaped our own fate. Yes, luck plays a role, as do the whims of people, the currents of society, and forces of nature. But we make choices every moment, and looking back we can see how our past decisions provide historical explanations for our experience.

So what does this have to do with making amends? Consider this example: It seems to me that friends and partners from my past might not be surprised to learn I feel a bit isolated. They might remember me pushing away their efforts to connect, and might have predicted that some day I’d suffer a lack of long term bonds. My behavior pained them years ago, but its aftermath pains me now. This is a kind of karma lite.

If we wail about the fruits of our own actions, we demonstrate willful refusal to accept responsibility. More adverse consequences will likely accrue until we recognize our part in writing our own story. On the other hand, if we gracefully endure the discomfort resulting from past mistakes, if we embrace the karma we accumulate in this very lifetime, we can honor those we harmed, accept the consequences of our actions, and ultimately forgive ourselves. We can resolve our past errors even in cases where we can’t reach those we’ve injured.

The healthiest premise for punishment is that it cleanses the offender of past errors. The prisoner released after serving time well should be given the benefit of a doubt. He or she has paid for past mistakes. By accepting the hardships we bring on ourselves, we can pay for our own missteps in life.

I’m not suggesting that consequences accrue because of a divine plan to punish humans, only that history unfolds in an orderly fashion and we tend to experience the consequences of our mistakes. I’m not proposing a God that metes out punishment, or a karmic wheel that keeps score. I’m just pointing out that quite often we live to regret past actions. When that happens, we can seek a learning experience, a corrective, and a balancing.

This is good news, because it allows us another means for cleaning up the past and moving forward with a lighter burden. Graciously accepting painful consequences is one way of making amends to those we can’t reach, and of healing the wounds in our own betrayed ethics. I find it helps me to accept the effects of my bad choices if I look at them from the perspective of working off debts.

Repaying the Past

Will Meecham, MD, MA

In late 2014, Will Meecham, MD, MA, launched to combine clear explanations of biology with meditations on Life.

Before he felt ready to start, Will needed to overcome a highly traumatic upbringing. In young adulthood he coped with his past by over-achieving, completing years of higher education in ecology, biophysics, neuroscience, and medicine. But in mid-life, when neck disease ended his career as an oculoplastic surgeon, he was forced to confront vulnerabilities such as low self-esteem, high reactivity, interpersonal conflict, dissociation, and an unstable sense of identity, all of which are common problems for those who suffered hardship early in life.

After years of inner work, he grew more stable, grounded, and secure. Along the way, he discovered that his lifelong love of biology helped him find meaning and purpose in Life. He now works to encourage greater appreciation, gratitude, and compassion for the human body.

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APA Reference
Meecham, W. (2011). Repaying the Past. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 5, 2020, from


Last updated: 24 May 2011
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