The Thing About Looking Back

I heard Megan gasp, so I looked back, and Chris looked back, and then I looked forward just in time to run into Chris, whom I very nearly tackled into morning rush hour traffic on Clayton Road. 

I didn’t, mind you, but it was close.

Looking back poses all sorts of hazards to runners—namely, streetlamps, telephone poles, stop signs, concrete barriers, curbs, trashcans, and automobiles. After all, crashing into things is a natural consequence of looking in the opposite direction of that in which you are moving. And yet, more often than I’d like to admit, I do. I look back. 

And not just in running.

Guys, I run into things. A lot. It’s a gift, really. You know that permanent, concrete trashcan at the corner of Delmar and Skinker? The one across from the gas station? I ran into that at tempo pace. Oh, and the old trolley on display in the Loop across from Fitz’s? I almost lost a kidney courtesy of the wooden handrail on the ramp in front of the display. (Why I was running up the ramp to the trolley display is beside the point.) I trip over curbs, stumble on stairs, and plow (always unexpectedly) into fast moving objects—like waiters and the perfume people at department stores. The universe is trying to tell me (it’s yelling, really) that more harm than good comes from looking back. And yet. I. Can’t. Help. Myself. Even when I know there is no good reason to look back.

Case in point: Two albums I listened to frequently while training for my last half marathon were Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and Radiohead’s OK Computer. I know the albums well. I had listened to them countless times before. And yet every time I hit play, I would swear I was being chased by a helicopter, a feral cat, and an oscillating fan. Despite the risks involved—and my foreknowledge of the songs—I probably averaged three furtive backward glances per mile, a particularly harrowing statistic when you factor in that many of those miles were on trails. 

And, yes, I did hit a tree. 

As I said, the universe is trying to tell me something. 

The topic of looking back is especially apropos at this time of year. Christmas carols hearken back to the golden days of yore. At least once an hour on local radio stations George Michael remembers last Christmas and vows to make better gift giving decisions. And the internet is flooded with year-end headlines, such as “A Look Back at Kate Middleton’s Style” and “A Look Back at the Year’s Best Selfies” and “A Look Back at Kim Kardashian, Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-un, and Other People Who Made You Embarrassed to be a Human in 2014.” If not for the occasional “Naked Man Rides Three-Legged Llama Through Gordon Ramsey’s Kitchen AND YOU WON’T BELIEVE WHAT HAPPENS NEXT!” headline, you’d think all we do is look back. 

#breaktheinternet, folks. #breaktheinternet

But looking back can be a tricky thing, because there are two kinds of looking back. One centers on remembering. The other, on regret. The former is healthy. The latter is crippling. With the former, you can move on, wiser and stronger. With the latter, you can’t move on at all.

I struggle with the bad kind of looking back. I have a hard time letting go of things I wish had gone differently. “I could have done this better,” I scold myself. The reproaches are frequent and familiar.

“I knew better…”

“I should have known...”

“I wish I had…”

“I wish I hadn’t…”

“If only…”

They say we’re our own harshest critics. If that’s the case, my critic is the nagging kind with a memory like a steel trap. Even worse, I’m pretty sure it bought a fancy display—like one of those marathon medal hangers—to showcase every shortcoming I have and mistake I’ve ever made.

“Remember this one?” it asks, pulling a regret from years ago. “How embarrassing!” It moves on to another. “Oh! And this? Don’t you wish you could do this differently?” it chortles. “And look at this one here. This one still bothers you! You were so hurt.” It sighs with contentment. “Ah, so many lovely regrets. So many tears. How delightful!” 

It’s funny what we remember. Things that others may forget or toss aside without a second thought can eat away at us with relentless cruelty. They can be little things—like eating cookie cake all day after resolving to cut back on sugar. Or they can be big things—like relationships and misplaced trust. But in both cases, the truth remains: you can look back or you can move forward, but you can’t do both.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “If you board the wrong train, it is no use running along the corridor in the other direction.” Half the victory is recognizing we’re on the wrong train in the first place, whether it’s our own fault or not. Why, then, would we paralyze ourselves by wallowing in regret? Shouldn’t our reaction be to barrel roll out the nearest door?

Don't Look BackIt’s tempting to dwell on negative experiences. Don’t do it. Life is too exciting and wonderful to waste looking over your shoulder. Look in the direction you’re moving. All the best stuff is in front of you.

And, at the very least, you’ll avoid that trashcan at Delmar and Skinker.  

Amy L. Marxkors is the author of The Lola Papers: Marathons, Misadventures, and How I Became a Serious Runner and Powered By Hope: The Teri Griege Story.  Click here to receive Amy's weekly article via email.

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