Memory provides the story of who we are. We collect memories—good and bad, keeping some and forgetting others, and also learning to reframe old narratives. We tell the stories of our lives based on memories. They can define us, set us free, save our lives, and limit our perspective on our lives and the world.
Gabriel García Márquez said that “Life is not what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it.” Marquez was a Colombian and Nobel Prize Winner in Literature, perhaps best known for his novel, One Thousand Years of Solitude. As a storyteller, Marquez would certainly have been focused on remembering in order to recount, to retell, the stories of what happened to him and the world.
According to poet Jorge Luis Borges,
We are our memory,we are that chimerical museum of shifting shapes,that pile of broken mirrors.
Though memory is a cornerstone of the self, it is also a pile of broken mirrors we know only in fragments. It shifts and evolves. It can be unreliable at times. As the writer Virginia Woolf says, it is a “capricious seamstress that stitches our lives together.”
The fallible nature of memory is captured beautifully by Maria Popova. Popova is a cultural critic and writer. Born in Bulgaria, she currently lives in Brooklyn, NY. She recalls one quite vivid memory from her early childhood. She was three years old. She remembers she was wearing a cotton polka-dot jumper, and standing in front of the elephant yard at the Sofia Zoo in Bulgaria. Popova writes:
I remember squinting into a scowl as the malnourished elephant behind me swirls dirt into the air in front of her communism-stamped concrete edifice. I don’t remember the temperature, though I deduce from the memory of my outfit that it must have been summer. I don’t remember the smell of the elephant or the touch of the blown dirt on my skin, though I remember my grimace.
She clung to that memory. Then one day in her twenties, she discovered a photo album in her grandmother’s cabinet in Bulgaria. Among the photos was one depicting that moment at the zoo. Popova says,
There I was, scowling in my polka-dot jumper with the elephant and the cloud of dust behind me. In an instant, I realized that I had been holding onto a prosthetic memory — what I remembered was the photograph from that day, which I must have been shown at some point, and not the day itself, of which I have no other recollection. The question . . . remains whether one should prefer having such a prosthetic memory, constructed entirely of photographs stitched together into artificial cohesion, to having no memory at all. (www.brainpickings.org/2016/11/29/hold-still-sally-mann-memory/)
Memory does indeed stitch our lives together. But memory is rather tricky, it turns out. Sometimes we struggle to remember at all, sometimes to distinguish acquired memories from actual ones, and sometimes our memory is distorted by intense negative experiences. One of the important things we are learning about memory is that intense moments and often negative ones, especially negative endings, are privileged over small, but pleasant moments.
Evolution has had a hand in that. Our survival has often depended on our ability to see the warning signs of danger ahead. But this survival mechanism may have other consequences that work against our well-being. The mind’s focus on intense and negative experiences and how they end tends to lead to decisions that aren’t necessarily in a person’s best interests and may limit a broader perspective on the overall experience.
One study points to these implications. Subjects were told there would be three trials. In the first trial, they immersed one hand in ice water for 60 seconds. The water was at a moderately painful temperature. They used the other hand to record their pain level for the 60 seconds. In the second trial, they immersed one hand in ice water for 90 seconds and again recorded pain levels with the other hand. During the final 30 seconds of the second trial, the water was slowly warmed by one degree. The water was still somewhat painful but slightly less so during those last 30 seconds of the second trial. In the third trial, the subjects were asked to choose to repeat the 60 second or the 90 second trial. An overwhelming 80 percent chose the 90 second trial. They actually chose to experience pain longer. They were willing to suffer longer when the experience ended only slightly better. (www.huffpost.com/entry/experience-memory_b_1456733)
This kind of decision-making applies to how we think about a medical procedure, marriage, job, vacation, our health, or a friendship. For example, someone in a job who has had many successful years of happy employment but is suddenly fired may remember the whole work experience negatively. And a less successful job that ends better may be remembered more positively.
Health issues later in life offer another example of how memory is shaped. Health issues can distort the perception of what was in reality a long and happy life. I wrestled with this with my parents’ illnesses at the end of their lives. I had to work hard to reframe my own memories of their lives. I had to reclaim the long arc of their narratives and not just their difficult deaths.
This raises interesting questions. Are the worst moments and the most intense moments necessarily the best measure of our lives? Should someone’s worst deed or tragic death become the measure of how they ought to be remembered? Do we allow the worst of ourselves to define who we are?
Consider for a moment the writer T.S. Eliot, who was so gifted, and who was an anti-Semite. Do we stop reading his work? Do we qualify his poems each time we read one? What about Thomas Jefferson and his difficult history with slavery? Does his being a slave holder blot out his positive impact on our nation? There are more contemporary examples, director Harvey Weinstein among them. Do we stop watching the movies and shows he directed in response to his sexual assaults and misconduct?
I have to admit that my own responses to and reflections on these questions is complicated and contradictory and inconsistent. I wrestle with how best to stitch together a narrative that is honest and just.
I’ve been thinking this week about the impact of media coverage on how we remember mass murders. There is growing evidence that extensive media coverage of killers has a “contagion effect.” High-profile coverage unintentionally turns mass murderers into celebrities and glamorizes violence. Other individuals who are calculating murder become “infected.” In their distorted search for fame and power, they emulate the high-profile killer. They may even attempt to gain more publicity than previous killers.
The point here is not to blame the press. I want to be very clear about that. But I do think we could all agree that it is a sad commentary on our culture when a shooter is better remembered than those who lost their lives.
So what might we do given our understanding of how memory tends to privilege intense moments and negative endings? What might we do to have a more balanced perspective and stitch together memories to enhance our well-being.
Daniel Kahneman suggests that having an understanding that we have both a remembering self and an experiencing self can help. It can help especially if we pay more attention to connecting these two selves. Kahneman is an American-Israeli psychologist whose work in behavioral economics earned him the 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. He isn’t an economist. He describes the remembering self as the slow, rational, conscious mode of thinking that tells the story of our experience. It concerns itself with how pleased or disappointed we are when we think about our lives. It is also the self that makes decisions. The remembering self notes changes in the story, intense moments especially negative ones, and the ending.
The experiencing self, on the other hand, is the one that is in the psychological present. The experiencing self is a fast, intuitive, unconscious mode of thinking that operates in this very moment. This self is akin to Beginner’s Mind. It is the life that makes all things new, the fuller breath, the paths untrod that we sang about in our opening hymn. (“O Life That Maketh All Things New”) The experiencing self comes fresh to each moment. This is the self that lives life in the now. And that now is fleeting.
Most of that “now” leaves no mark at all in our memories. We live our lives in three-second increments. In a month, that comes to about 600,000 moments of experience, and in a lifetime about 600 million. Kahneman says that: "most of [those moments] don’t leave a trace. Most of them are completely ignored by the remembering self. And yet, somehow you get the sense that they should count, that what happens during those moments of experience is our life. It’s the finite resource that we’re spending while we’re on this earth. And how to spend it would seem to be relevant." (www.ted.com/talks/daniel_kahneman_the_riddle_of_experience_vs_memory?lan...)
Indeed, how we spend our lives is relevant. It seems that all of these moments of life ought to count for something. How we are actually spending our time ought to matter as much as how we remember it later.
If you want to have a better sense of these two selves, I invite you into a thought experiment. Daydream with me for a moment. Imagine that you have the opportunity to take a two-week vacation anywhere you want. Anywhere in the world. Cost is not a factor. Where would you go? Who would you go with? Now imagine that after that vacation, you arrive home and all of your photographs vanish. Not only that, you have no recollection of the vacation at all. How do you feel about the vacation? Would this alter your choice? Would you decide to go somewhere else instead? Would you go with someone different? If you would make different choices about that vacation, you might have a disconnect between your remembering self and your experiencing self. You may be placing more emphasis on thinking about the experience of a vacation than you are on having the experience. (www.ted.com/talks/daniel_kahneman_the_riddle_of_experience_vs_memory?lan...)
What we remember individually and collectively forms the narrative of our individual lives and history. We are our memories. But that isn’t the whole story. That isn’t the whole of who we are. Surely we must be more than our memories. Surely we must also be the present experiences we are having, even those that leave no trace.
All of this has profound implications for those with amnesia or who are dealing with memory loss from stroke or dementia/Alzheimer’s. Surely these individuals are more than their memories. Surely their experiences matter whether they remember them or not. I can’t help but believe that every moment counts. Every moment of experience matters whether it is consciously remembered or not. This moment right now. This present moment.
Can this moment ever truly be lost? I’m pretty likely to forget it. Does that mean it doesn’t count? Perhaps all the moments of our experience—all of them stitched together, those remembered, misremembered, fragmentary, imperfect, prosthetic, or forgotten—perhaps they all exist somewhere in some larger consciousness.
Perhaps they are informing and shaping our collective memory and also the present moment in ways we don’t yet understand. We may be our memories, but we are also the moments of our experiences.
May we find ways to connect our remembering and our experiencing selves. May we recount our stories. May we also be present to our lived experience in this sacred moment.
Amen. Blessed be.