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Sankofa: Why You Should Look Back To Move Forward

Updated: Apr 11, 2019

We all heard the word growing up. We were belted with it as children when we dared challenge the directives of our elders. Our elders. Anyone older than you, even a year or less, is your elder and must be rendered the full spoils of such difference and stature. We were brought up to refer to our elders with prefixes like bro (bra-h), sister, aunti, uncle. An when none of those prefixes made sense, yet they needed to be given respect, “please” replaced the person’s name entirely.

Sankɔfa is the word. The place was Ghana and the language this word originates from is Twi. The tone that accompanied the word Sankɔfa when spoken was not important, as the word by itself was a command. It did not matter if you used a soft voice or an elevated volume. It is a word without placidity. The san means go back or return, means go and fa means take it. Thus, when put together it translates to “go back and take it.”

As we grew up, we were introduced to the proverb that accompanied the word Sankɔfa, which says, “Sɛwo were fi na wosankɔfa a, yɛnkyi.” Meaning, “when you forget and you go back to take it, it is not detested or disliked.” And with that subliminally grounded in our mannerisms, we inherently began looking back in order to propel forward.

Looking back to understand is one of the best ways to move forward. By first looking back, we can understand the happenings of the past and usher ourselves into the curative process of letting go. In many instances looking back gives us the permission slip we need to review, sign and seal an experience away to better appreciate what lies ahead.

Here are three reasons why you should look back and three ideas on how to do that and love the process.

1. Looking Back Helps Us Forgive (ourselves and others)

After losing my job a year ago and failing to secure interviews, thus a job, for seven months, I was told to do something unusual. My friend, Hasnaa, told me to print out my resume, tape it to the wall and look back at all I have achieved before turning 28. She gave me a good “get up and keep moving” talk that wiped away my tears that day. I realized I had been shaming myself for being a “ failure” at securing a job, and wallowed in self-shame. I was adding to the depressing response job search comes with. I apologized to myself for forgetting how much effort and sacrifice I put into arriving at where I am. I reminded myself of the time I made a five-year plan in undergraduate school and I achieved every single thing on my list without fail, and certainly with many sacrifices. But I did it. I looked at my oldest resume and chuckled.

Forgiveness is a word synonymous with shame but stops when soothed by empathy. Dr Brené Brown says it best in her 2012 Ted talk, Listening to Shame, "if you put shame in a petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence and judgment. If you put the same amount of shame in a petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive."

Looking back allows us to forgive ourselves and others who played any part in how things ended or remain. It gives us the chance to have conversations which empathize with our shame, helps us forgive and places us in a good mental space to move forward.

Idea: Take time to visit old places, people or memorabilia that brought you joy, a sense of pride and maybe even taught you a lesson which shaped you. The trip does not have to be physical but if you can make it so, do it. A change of scenery is like a fairy dust, you suddenly believe you can fly again; and in some cases, people spread their wings and soar. The visit can also be a mental and emotional one which involves your mind, your favourite blanket, and a glass of wine - you may need it for the ugly parts. We all have them.

2. Looking Back Humbles Us

We are forgetful creatures. And more so when the good times flood away the bad times, we forget how things were. Getting to the top is a goal many of us have. However, when we get there we usually (not always) forget our past journey and get caught up with sprinting forward. Our forgetfulness enshrouds the positive influence of looking back to find something valuable. Looking back humble us when our ego grows out of control.

Taking a trip down memory lane humbles us and keeps us in check. It tells us to Sankɔfa. Be it looking back for knowledge, thanking a lifter or reaching back to be a resource to others. It is a free tool that does not measure how humble you have been and how low you can go.

Idea: Write down the thoughts and people that were or are hard to face as you looked back. Add to the list those who lifted you and the wise sayings they gave you as you went on your quest. Brainstorm where you created a gap and see how you can bridge it. The idea is not to shame yourself, but rather to liberate your ego to evolve into a better resources for your immediate and extended society.

3. Looking Back Is Curative

Anything curative means it can be understood. You cannot cure, heal or move forward without understanding what happened. To do so, you must look back for the duration needed to find answers.

Understanding your history and pattern before you move forward is the goal here. It serves as a therapeutic instrument. It is a meeting where you lead yourself at your own pace. And by doing so, your perspective changes from the inside, giving a lasting insight of the past and a strong awareness into how to move forward and stay there.

Idea: Change how you view your past by understanding your history and pattern. Allow it to be a curative process. Allow the past to be understood in different voices so it does not grow into a trigger and set off in inconvenient times. Talk to yourself or with a trusted person to unpack it all. It can be a confrontational time so don’t do it alone if you can. However, some things are better done alone because the forgiveness we seek does not start from others. It starts by forgiving and humbling ourselves.

Sankɔfa growing up felt restrictive. It was a command. But now it is one of my favourite things to do. I adore looking back and often find myself drawing from my past to gain strength to stand strong and remain forward. I hope you give it a try and tell me about. I’d love to hear from you.




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