Does dwelling in the past prevent you from focusing on the future? Or does the past have a role to play in your present? Sangeetha Swaroop explores this timeless debate

How often have we been told to forget the past and move on? How many times have we been advised to live in the now and shut out the past? 

Those who believe in the power of the future view dwelling on the past as a step backward. But hasn't the past moulded you into what you are today? Indeed, when seeking solace, we often rummage through the treasure trove of our memories. Yet, not all memories are happy. 

Some bring tears, others make you cringe. As painful as it may be to revisit bad memories, it's the only way to move forward. As the past helps us to understand the present, reflecting on it will nourish us and inspire us to face the unknown confidently. 

Friday talks to four people in the UAE about the lessons they've gained from the past.  

Hania M refaat: The sum of my past Hania M. Refaat was working in advertising when she was offered a job as a marketing manager with Sony Music. 

"The opportunity ... helped shape my professional destiny," she says. "I believe the seeds of the future are sown in our past and the present. None of us would be where we are today had it not been for our past. 

"I consider my experience with Sony as the opportunity of a lifetime," says Refaat, now promotions manager at EMI Music Arabia. "Everything I know about the music industry ... I attribute it to those two wonderful years."

But Refaat's career development is only one aspect of her past.

"My personal life has seen many ups and downs, including a divorce," she adds.

"My marriage came to an end unfortunately because [my ex-husband and I] differed greatly in our views and on certain key issues. Yet, the decision to end the marriage ... brought much-needed peace of mind.

"My life had been quite miserable most of the time during those two years of marriage and having been through the worst meant that I was able to appreciate the soundness of my decision, refocus on what I really wanted out of a relationship and emerge as a person more aware of my needs and wants. I don't deny the hurt and resentment it caused but I've also been fortunate to rid myself of the emotional baggage [of] a failed marriage. 

"We can never be rid of good or bad incidents in our lives. We need the good and the bad as these combine to weave the complex web of our life. What makes the difference is our approach towards each experience we go through. No matter how bad an experience is, if you have learnt something from it, then it becomes a good experience. 

"In my marriage, I was able to discern what exactly I was missing and when  I knew the qualities I looked for in a man were absent ... it seemed meaningless  to carry on. Fortunately, today I am engaged to a man who, I believe, possesses the characteristics I've been yearning for. 

"I consider myself a blend of all the experiences I've had. And it is these very conditions that have led me on to the threshold of my life, where today  I have found solace and comfort."

Michael Wunsch: drawing on experience German-born Michael Wunsch left school at 14 to take on an apprenticeship in a pastry shop, then at 17, started his first job in the hotel industry.

Two years later he left Germany to eventually work in over 30 hotels around the world, including the UAE. His decision in 1999 to make a volte face in his career met with concern from friends.

"From a high-end occupation as executive chef of Al Bustan Rotana Hotel in Dubai, I decided to join hands with a partner to set up Barakat Quality Plus, a production facility dealing in freshly cut vegetables, fruits and fresh juices," he says.

"Setting up was no easy task. But my in-depth knowledge of the hotel industry gave me complete faith in the project. You can never take away what experience teaches you. There are many things that cannot be learned through academic courses - for nothing holds up against the experiences you've had.

"I've often reflected on how I've handled something in the past and then applied it in my new job.

"For instance, in the very early days of the company, tragedy struck when two of our employees were killed in a car accident. It was a disturbing experience and the employees were all in a state of shock and deeply upset. 

"But when I recalled a similar incident during my stint at a hotel in South Africa, I remembered how we handled the situation then. [After this]  I began to tackle it in the same way. 

"So we got everyone together and talked to them, motivating them to look forward. We decided to support the families of the victims and educate their children till such time that they were self-sufficient. This instilled the much-needed confidence and sense of security among the employees." 

Carrie Cunningham: the old times and 'learning about myself'
Dealing with a painful past has been no different for New Zealander Carrie Cunningham, whose tragic personal experiences brought her to Dubai  as she attempts to rebuild her life. 

During her childhood, her parents' separation left her in emotional turmoil. Later, as she braved through her husband's illness, she did not let herself grieve over circumstances beyond her control. But she recognises the importance of her past. 

"If I were given a choice to change something about my past, I would still say 'no' because I do believe that what I am today is definitely a product of my life's experiences," says Cunningham, head of business development, Sigma Consultancy, Dubai.

"Every experience - both happy and sad - have contributed to making me what I am today."

Just 3 when her parents separated, her earliest memories are of watching other children with their parents at school and comparing herself to them. 

"As a young child, perhaps I wanted to be in their shoes. I would often wonder what it would be like if I were also to live with my mum and dad together as one big, happy family. 

"But when I look back, I realise that having a mum and dad who didn't live together did not make either of them love me any less. In fact, the experience of having parents who were separated helped me become independent, fuelled and formed my opinions and made me stronger."

Yet, for all her conviction, nothing could prepare her for the shock when,  at 26 and newly wedded, her husband was diagnosed with motor neuron disease (MND), a muscle wasting illness that progressively paralyses the victim. 

"Jarrod was only 32 and neither of us had dealt with anything like this before," she says. "It is not something you expect to go through at that age. 

But now, when I look back, I feel this experience has made me understand what I am capable of - my strengths, my weaknesses and my limits. In a way, it kind of introduced me to myself.

"Jarrod was a professional rugby player, an avid sportsman and to see  how the disease slowly attacked his physicality over a period of about  18 months meant he needed my help to shower, to get dressed, to eat, to get around - pretty much everything - and, it really did change our lives. 

"But Jarrod has never been one to give up easily ... As doctors admitted nothing more could be done, he insisted he would fight the disease alone." 

For almost three years, every moment in her life revolved around her husband: his exercises, massages and diet. She also had to take responsibility  for providing financial security. 

However, Jarrod refused to let the situation continue the way it was, she says. Noticing how it was destroying her spirit and wanting to stay with his  family in New Zealand, he advised her to go abroad and pursue her dreams.

"In a way, he was letting me go. When I reflect on our life together,  this is one moment I feel deeply about. Saying goodbye was one of the hardest things for us to do but it has made our love and friendship much more ... meaningful. The strong bond we now share cannot wither or change and to this day I am in constant touch with him."

Starting a new life necessitated moving to Dubai 10 months ago through a contract with modelling agency, Bareface. 

"Now that my life has returned to a semblance of normalcy, I view any challenges that come my way in the light of what has happened in the past. Any situation seems trivial compared to what I've endured."

"You can never turn your back on what's happened or expect to shut it out completely. For ultimately, these experiences make us who we are."

Danish Chotani: gaining a new perspective
Danish Chotani, 35, and a private banker with NBD, has been through some highs and lows in his life. He grew up in the lap of luxury as the youngest child of a senior banking official in Dubai. 

But in 1987, Chotani's father lost his job and his father asked him to return  to India to live in the ancestral home in Mumbai with his brothers. The initial days were full of joy fun but soon cracks began to develop. 

"The final straw came when we were asked to leave the house - within weeks of our moving in there," he says. 

"With no home and no source of income, throwing us out of the family home emotionally wrecked my dad. Financially too, he was in ruins  but with whatever savings he had accumulated he decided to set up  a business. Unfortunately, things began to go wrong ... [resolving] this financial quagmire seemed next to impossible." 

The family moved from Mumbai to Bangalore, Pune and Hyderabad, living with relatives as they tried to piece together their lives. Amid all these uncertainties, Chotani completed a course in journalism. 

Yet, years of comfortable living in Dubai had not prepared him for the competitive spirit among his peers in India. When chances of a job opening seemed bleak, his mother gave him Dh500 and asked him to go to Dubai and hunt for a job. 

"I was just 22 and took the first job that came my way - waiting on tables at the Expo Centre in Sharjah. It amused me to see how people I'd known earlier would look the other way when they saw me at work. But I wasn't ashamed nor did I mind their reactions. 

"All the events ... changed my perspective on life. It [instilled] a very strong sense of understanding of what I need to look for in life. It helped me focus on my priorities and opened my eyes to what was trivial. Until these incidents occurred, I had never realised the value of money. It was something I'd always taken for granted. 

"There I was ... struggling to make ends meet. Eventually, I started working simultaneously for two brokerage firms, leaving the apartment at sunrise to return in the wee hours of the morning."

Keeping the past as an example and remembering lessons from it has made him a better person, Chotani says. 

"The challenge lies not in living life as it comes, but to add value to it, enhance it, so you do not repeat the same mistakes or succumb to the same circumstances."