What Do You Remember?

“Right now I’m having amnesia and déjà vu at the same time. I think I’ve forgotten this before.” ― Steven Wright

If I look at my phone while on the way to the kitchen I will invariably forget my mission.

I’ve got post-it notes all over the house now – there are several important tasks that I need to keep in front of me.

I’m going to do a better job of trying to learn the names of all 75 of my students this semester, and all 44 of my advisees.

I went to see one of my students last week. She was in the hospital. I live so close, it didn’t take me long to quickly make the decision and get going. She had sent me an email and it sounded like she needed a visit. I learned a long time ago that going to see someone who’s in the hospital can be a big deal and is always worth the effort.

But there was another nagging pull at my emotions as I was getting ready and on my way. Over the past five years, my wife and I had made many trips to the hospital while she fought a hard battle with cancer. Going to the hospital again today hurt as the door to a great room full of feelings was opened up.

Life is made up of choices that we navigate. Decisions that at times we are unconscious about even making. So many of our turns and jolts along the way are shaped by memory. Some of these memories can be painful and still filled with emotions.

“We are our choices.” ― Jean-Paul Sartre

I teach a course in Social Psychology. We cover content related to cognitive biases, the many ways that our thinking can be foggy. Our memories are often distorted in a number of ways. Here are some examples (I’ve shared some of these before):

Hindsight Bias: when we think about past events, we believe that we were able to predict them, we knew it all along

Confirmation Bias: when thinking about the past, we tend to only see pieces that corroborate what we believe – we find what we are looking for (disregarding disconfirming information)

Rosy Retrospective: we tend to remember events the past better than they really were

Self-Serving Bias: we believe we were responsible for the good things that happened but not for the bad things

Reminiscence Bump: it’s often easier to recall personal details from adolescence and early adulthood than from other periods of our life

These are just of few of the problems we can experience. Memory really can play tricks on us. Despite these known problems, I don’t think this is the real worry about our memory. I think we often end up letting our memory use us rather than visa versa.

Instead, I suggest that you:

  1.  Use your memories of the past in deliberate ways to shape your steps today
  2. Let the memories of people from your past help you to get through the troubles of today – and make plans about tomorrow. Let examples inspire you.
  3. Look backwards and make deliberate choices about your memories. Keep those that you can learn from, that give you strength, that you can pass on to others. Let the rest fade away. Set them down, like a heavy suitcase, and walk away.

All of this means you are going to have to spend some time being reflective. Think about your life right now – how did you get here and where are you going?

“I love the dark hours of my being.
My mind deepens into them.
There I can find, as in old letters,
the days of my life, already lived,
and held like a legend, and understood.”

― Rainer Maria Rilke

As I drove to the hospital last week, there were heartbreaking memories flooding back. But what became more important to me was remembering all of the wonderful people who came to the hospital and took care of us, whose presence, even for a few minutes, was like a cup of hope. What beloved memories that keep me going every single day…and took me down the road that day to the hospital to see someone else.