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.

The Ghosts of Christmas

“You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”  ― Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

We live out each day surrounded by memories and in so many ways these mark out the pathway toward each one of our tomorrows.

“I can only note that the past is beautiful because one never realises an emotion at the time. It expands later, and thus we don’t have complete emotions about the present, only about the past.” ― Virginia Woolf

I’ve been in my house alone for four months. The TV going just so there’s background sounds on while I’m doing my chores. But there are other sounds in the house that seem to be haunting my days and nights. Some I can explain, others…

  1. I’ve written before about my haunted refrigerator that moans and groans. It causes my grandson to stop and look around when we are here together. He wonders who else is hiding in the house. It’s just our marked down appliance painfully making ice all day and night.
  2. Early this fall the derelict hot water heater in the attic had a spigot dripping. It could only be heard late at night by the rare overnight visitor in the guest bedroom underneath. It’s very old and I’m certain it’s going to go any minute. I’m just glad it’s not over my bed!
  3. There’s been a history of varmints in my attic. They are back for winter. This year the squirrels (above my bedroom) go in and out each morning and the opossum makes his exit at night. Lots of traffic to try and corral. They get noisy at times, late at night especially.

As Christmas decorations have gone up there are other haunting spirits that speak, sometimes softly and at other times very loud. My house is now even more bathed in memory. Christmas was my wife’s favorite time of year. It’s a season filled with treasures of memory to take me with joy into days, weeks and months ahead.

This time of year can bog any of us down with urgent tasks that must get done. There are events, festivities and family gatherings crowding the calendar. Extra meals, gifts and decorations must all be purchased and prepared. Despite online, curbside and next day, our days remain fraught with increased activity. Year after year, nothing seems to change.

This year, stop and sit down for a few minutes each day and collect your memories. Write something down in a journal. Make a list in your phone. Like treasures, arrange them in your heart so that you don’t miss any part of this holiday and new year. Don’t let your busyness steal away those moments so important to remember.

Researchers have long known that (1) your current mood influences what you file away about your experiences into your memory. If you are in a perpetual bad mood, you will tend to only remember your negative experiences.  And (2) your current mood tends to determine what kinds of memories you retrieve. If you’re in a general good mood, you will tend to pull up only positive memories from the past.

This means our memory making and retrieving are influenced by our emotional feelings and attitudes. 

“He was consious of a thousand odours floating in the air, each one connected with a thousand thoughts, and hopes, and joys, and cares, long, long, forgotten.” ― Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

What is it that’s always floating in the air about you? What treasured memories are worth holding onto? That bad mood is going to poison not just today but your future as well.

“Our memory is a more perfect world than the universe: it gives back life to those who no longer exist.” ― Guy de Maupassant

You will of course create new memories this holiday. I am only urging you to stop with those you love and be more intentional about remembering bits and pieces of your past. Share a laugh, get the details right, and cry a little. Use these to hang on to all that really matters from days gone by. This will keep you in a happy mood, and it will lock away the good stuff for a rich future (for you and everyone else).

“I will live in the past, the present, and the future. The spirits of all three shall strive within me.” ― Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

Always Remember

“The time is ripe for looking back over the day, the week, the year, and trying to figure out where we have come from and where we are going to, for sifting through the things we have done and the things we have left undone for a clue to who we are and who, for better or worse, we are becoming.” – Frederick Buechner

 

Another Memorial Day is behind us. Not just a long weekend and the start of summer fun. No, this is a time to remember our fallen heroes and those that wear uniforms and serve us still. It’s a weekend for the flag, visits to the grave stones and hearing stories that will soon be gone into the mist of memory.

Remembering isn’t confined to just special weekends like this one. It can become a very healthy and liberating practice.

Too often we remember with regret. We think about the past and filter out all but the fun stuff. There are depths to our lived experiences that only bear fruit in years and generations to come. As we remember the details, the filed away emotions and the unresolved situations, we continue to build our self of today. Those days of long ago still work even now, they still have power to change us, to nourish our souls and to bear something meaningful for others.

Remember when you failed, crashing down in flames.

These seem to be the easiest memories that our fragile egos clutch in so much desperation. Failure is a part of everyone’s story. Failure is only half of the story. Too often, we leave our failures to rot in the grave of our memory and they end up doing nothing but bringing us harm. Failure, taken to it’s end, can liberate us. We learn from failure. We grow resilient from failure. We grow up and mature when we fail. All of these are like forks in the road of failure, chances to go right or wrong. Too often we take the wrong fork, or worse yet, become paralyzed and stop moving forward altogether.

“If we will be quiet and ready enough, we shall find compensation in every disappointment.”  ― Henry David Thoreau

Remember when you offered that helping hand, when no one else even noticed.

There are secret memories that are really no one else’s business. Private words of encouragement and comfort that are said quickly or spoken with great care. Only you were able to help and so you did. Maybe it was something you could do in secret and not even the one being helped would ever know. These are the memories about yourself that are too often crowded out by all the mistakes from your past. It leaves you with a memory that forever limps with an imbalance.

Remember when you didn’t think you were going to make it another step, your heart was too broken to go on.

These are hard memories to dig back up. They’ve typically been buried away, deep in the ground of forgetfulness where they can no longer cause pain. But so often it is out of this same brokenness that our next layer of wholeness emerges.

“Nobody had forgotten anything here. In Berlin, you had to wrestle with the past, you had to build on the ruins, inside them. It wasn’t like America where we scraped the earth clean, thinking we could start again every time. ” ― Janet Fitch

Remember, as you pack away that box, what all that stuff symbolizes to you. A box full of meaning from so long ago.

Are you an organizer? Do you collect all the debris from the journey of your life? Are there boxes of photographs, old journals, mementos from long ago – all piled up in top of your closet of pushed under your bed? Our memories are filled with symbolic meaning – a smell, a location, an article of clothing, etc. But those meanings are not just trapped in our past. It’s possible to look back and discover memories and assign new and powerful meaning to them.

I ran into a friend from twenty years ago. We talked about our shared past and remembered together a number of common experiences we had forgotten. Getting together, renewing our friendship and then sealing it with these memories bound up with meaning was a brand new and liberating experience that we built from our shared memory.

Remember those dreams you once had, stolen away by time and replaced by duty and necessity.

Keep them alive and beating away in your heart. Don’t put a timer on them. If they have to wait, let them wait until their time has come. Don’t live a life without the memory of all your hopes.

“Hold fast to dreams,
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird,
That cannot fly.”
― Langston Hughes

Let your dreams themselves, not the long wait for their arrival, keep your life filled with that longing for the next sunrise.

Remember all those people along the path of your life as you dig through the Christmas card photos from years gone by.

I tend to keep Christmas postcards with family photos way too long. I’ve got them all over the house. They remind me of childhood gone so quickly. I am nudged to pray for people all around me and far away. Those smiling faces that peer out at you, day after day, are a reminder of friendships and families that keep us grounded, connected and safe from loneliness.

“There’s a loneliness that only exists in one’s mind. The loneliest moment in someone’s life is when they are watching their whole world fall apart, and all they can do is blink.” ― F. Scott Fitzgerald

Remember yourself, someone who has been different at each stage of life, there’s someone who could really use what you know now.

When you talk with people, especially people who are at the stages of life that you have already passed through, remember you own life back then. Remember the encouraging words that helped you all along the way – or the words you wished you had heard. Be that person who lights the way for others. Use your own life, with all the mistakes and victories, to turn back and give others a hand up. Remember that you are not alone, that all kinds of people were there in your life – determine to be there for all those people passing by you. Use your past to enrich someone’s future. Be intentional with your speech, your actions and your prayers.

But don’t forget to help others and to share your possessions with them. This too is like offering a sacrifice that pleases God. – Hebrews 13:16

(Your memories are a possession too)