Three sisters ages 92, 94 and 96 live in a house together. One night the 96 year old draws a bath. She puts her foot in and pauses. She yells to the other sisters, “I can’t remember if I was gettin’ in or out of the bath?”
The 94 year old yells back, “I don’t know. I’ll come up and help.” She stops half way up the stairs and calls out. “Was I going up the stairs or down?”
The 92 year old is sitting at the kitchen table having tea listening to her sisters. She shakes her head and says, “I sure hope I never get that forgetful.” She knocks on wood for good measure, then yells,”I’ll come up and help both of you as soon as I see who’s at the door.”
Memory is a funny thing, here today, gone tomorrow. And it’s not just an issue for the elderly. At 45, I have a memory like a fish. Did I mention that I have a memory like a fish? I once left my kids in child care while working out. Then I drove all the way home before I realized I had left them behind.
Memory loss is not all bad. I have a friend with Alzheimer’s who had been a chain smoker for 30 years. She woke up one morning and forgot she was a smoker; quit just like that. Her health improved, even while her memory slipped. Whether it’s smoking, or difficult past experiences, sometimes a loss of memory is not all bad. As the Senility Prayer says, “May I have the senility to forget the people I never liked, the good fortune to run into those I do like, and the eye sight to tell the difference.”
Forgetting often makes it easier to move on, forgive and leave certain things behind. As long as you are genuinely moving on, and not suppressing painful memories.
Memory loss is not all bad. Remembering is important too. 20th century Spanish philosopher, George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
We tend to remember selectively, romantically if we’re overly optimistic, sentimentally if we’re overly traditional and regretfully if we’re overly nostalgic. .
The equivalent of selective memory in history is revisionism. A light hearted example is from the TV comedy The Office. Michael Scott stole a photograph of his girlfriend with his ex husband and two kids on a ski trip. He photo shopped the ex-husband out of the picture, put himself in and gave it to her as a Christmas card. “Skiseasons Greetings” as he said. His girlfriend Carol said “This is weird.” Michael said, “I don’t understand.” She was not impressed and dumped him.
It’s dangerous to try and change memories, especially other people’s memories.
Holocaust denial is the ultimate example of the dangers of revisionism. Peoples’ suffering gets swept under memory’s carpet with this sort of revisionism. It’s the same with most wars. It’s right to remember and honor those who went to war to fight for freedom. We can remember and learn from their example, that sometimes you have to make sacrifices for things you believe in. We should also remember the lies and political deceit that lead to most wars. If we don’t remember the past, we are condemned to repeat it.
There’s a world of difference between revisionism and reframing the past. Revisionism leads to denial and a repetition of the past and reframing leads to learning from the past, healing memories and moving on.
You can’t change what happened in the past. It’s all water under the bridge flowing in a river of memory. And every time you step in to a memory, like a river, it’s a different experience each time. You can’t change the past, but you can build a bridge in your mind, from memory to meaning. Choose how much power you give the past, and what you make it mean about who you are. From this perspective, up on the bridge of awareness, you can learn from the past, make sure you don’t repeat it, and reframe your memories in a way that serves you and others. In the next piece I write more about reframing memories.