(Or, How Math Homework Can Teach You to Not Worry About Yesterday)

When I was little, I hated getting in trouble.

Being a nerd when you’re 24 is cool; being a nerd when you’re 11? Not so much. But a nerd I was, and so I was mostly well-behaved, studious, and terrified of rule breaking. Not of other kids breaking rules, but the thought of personally getting in trouble made my little pre-pubescent heart palpitate.

One night, when I was in sixth grade, I didn’t do my math homework. Well, I wrote down the numbers to the problems, and stared at the paper for a little while, and then scrawled a big question mark next to the problem to fill up some of the very blank page. Unfortunately, question marks weren’t considered acceptable. When my teacher checked my homework the next day, despite my stammering attempts to explain, all I got was a smug “Boo-hoo. Sign the book,” in her elderly southern drawl. The book, as in, The Detention Book.

Needless to say, I was a wreck for the rest of the day. Detention? I don’t even know what that means! What do I have to do? Where do I go? What are the procedures? How do I get home? How can I avoid mom and dad finding out about this? What the heck is a “late bus”?!

It’s funny, in retrospect, how much anxiety a little boy can experience just from having to stay an extra 45 minutes after school, but what can I say? I hated getting in trouble.

I still do, even as a post-pubescent. Fortunately, my last math assignment was over four years ago. Still, even a simple, “Sir, you can’t park here,” makes me flinch. I end up repeating the incident over and over again in my head, replaying it ad nauseum until enough time passes, and it fades from memory.

Fortunately, as an adult, I rarely find myself in trouble, and the occasional incident is far less debilitating than it was in the halls of John Wallace Middle School. What I’ve come to realize is there’s no point in worrying about things that have already happened. Repeating a mistake in your head over and over again rectifies nothing. It only causes you to experience the same unpleasant emotional response you felt at the time.

It sounds simplistic to say you should learn from your mistakes, but that’s really all you can do about them once they’ve been made. I should have done my homework. Oh, well. Can’t do anything about it now — except prevent it from happening again.

Dwelling on the past beyond any meaningful reflection is a waste of time.

That’s not to say it isn’t hard to do, but sometimes you need to ask yourself what you’re gaining from allowing a thought to take up residence in your head. What purpose does this thought serve? Is it healthy for me to continue to think about this thing I can’t do anything about?

Maybe the answer is yes. Maybe it’s taking a long time to figure out exactly what happened and how to learn from it. That’s okay. But anguishing over things you can’t change, and things that, in thirteen years, might not be such a big deal, isn’t productive. In fact, it can be counterproductive if it prevents you from moving forward. It’s another form of paralysis generated by the mind. Fortunately, that means it’s also something you can control.

Everett Bogue puts it splendidly:

Spending one moment more than necessary worrying about what I should have done yesterday is a moment that I’m not spending now taking concrete actions that are necessary in order to achieve what I need now.

Don’t worry about yesterday. Do your homework, and soldier on.