Wrestling with the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future

Wrestling with the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future

“Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.”

Ah, the first line, albeit a ghastly one, of one of my favorite Christmas stories – Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. I grew up on the amazing (though terrifying to me as a kid) George C. Scott version. I’ve come to appreciate many different adaptations over the years, including A Muppet Christmas Carol, Jim Carrey’s animated Disney interpretation, and Jean Luc Picard’s…uh, I mean Patrick Stewart’s version from the late-1990’s. I tried to like the recently released Will Ferrell/Ryan Reynold’s take on the classic – “Spirited.” But as much as I like both these actors and the story, my wife and I turned it off at about the halfway point. Critiquing Spirited, however, isn’t the focus for our time together today.

I’d like to reflect a little bit on the three ghosts or spirits in the story – yeah, you know them – the ghosts of past, present, and future. Psychologists have suggested that our personalities are oriented along these same lines. They call it our temporal orientation. Some of us are more inclined to focus on the past, some on the present, and some on the future. As with many such things, there is no “right” or “wrong” way to be. There are, however, advantages and disadvantages for each orientation. And, I think, there is much value to considering our own alignment, so that we can take full advantage of those…well, advantages, and minimize the negative impact of the disadvantages. So, let’s take a look at each, in turn.

For those who are past oriented, there is value in learning from past mistakes and successes as well, the ability to derive much pleasure from positive memories, an innate ability to appreciate nostaglia, traditions, and ancestry, as well as a great capacity for sharing those meaningful stories and formative experiences with others. On the other hand, those with a past-orientation can ruminate or get “stuck” in past failures, disappointments, or traumas, finding it difficult to enjoy the present, focus on the task at hand, and/or plan for a positive future.

Present oriented people often have an amazing ability to live fully in the moment, not carrying the weight of past burdens, nor being constrained by how their actions might negatively impact them or others in the future. Present oriented people can be entertaining, spontaneous, and bring infectious enthusiasm to any gathering, event, or classroom. Present-oriented people can experience great success and enjoyment in their work, emanating from their enhanced ability to hyper-focus on the task at hand – a concept that reknown psychologist Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi called experiencing “flow.” Jedi-master Yoda called it using “the force.” On the other hand, present oriented people are at risk for neither fully learning the lessons of the past nor considering how their current actions, however enjoyable, might not translate to future success. If the current season of life is particularly challenging, the present-oriented person might have difficulty being mindful that – this too, shall pass. There can also be a danger in the hyper-focus in one area of life resulting in deficits in others. For example, consider the incredibly focused and successful business person who neglects eating well or regular exercise – resulting in occupational success, but problems with their physical health.

Then there are the futurists. These visionaries can have a gift of foresight, providing valuable insight into actions which are necessary to set up future success. These folks are often adept at planning enjoyable experiences for themselves and others. For the future-thinker who is also an optimist – this orientation can help them approach life and challenges they encounter with hope, confidence, and expectency. On the other hand, those with a future orientation can face challenges similar to those we already mentioned regarding the past-oriented people. Future thinking people can sometimes ruminate or get “stuck” in “planning-mode”, finding it difficult to enjoy the present, learn from past experiences, focus on or prioritize the tasks at hand, enjoy the fruits of their labor, and/or appreciate how their predecessors’ efforts have contributed to their own success. Additionally and for the future-thinker who is also pessimistic about what the future might hold, their efforts can seem hopeless, which can lead to a depressive state of mind.

So which one are you? Or, to put it another way, a visit from which Christmas Ghost would benefit you the most? How does your orientation allow you to meet the demands of work or school that you are called to do in this season of life? How might that same orientation get in your way of optimal vocational or academic success? How does your orientation impact your personal relationships and/or your physical health?  The good news is that, while we all likely have a predisposition towards a particular orientation, there isn’t a compelling argument or reason why we need to be stuck there. All of us have some control over our thoughts – what we think about, how much we think about those things, and to what we devote our time, efforts, and energies. Perhaps you, like me, have some ideas about how you can change your thinking, time and attention to result in healthier, happier, and more successful outcomes. And as we attempt to make those minor, but sometimes challenging adjustments, may we allow the words of Tiny Tim to inspire us along the way – “God bless us, every one.”

  • Dr. Rick Albright

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