I haven't written a blog in a while. I know. I recently moved into a new house, my husband's and my first house, in fact. My family visited three days after we closed, and then the holidays happened. I've spent the past two months going to parties, reading, and catching up with people. Now that I again have my head on straight, and don't feel as if I'm doing rapid-fire fun, I'm ready to get back to writing.
I wanted to write a little bit about memory. You see, memory is malleable. Every time we take a memory out from long-term storage into working memory, we have the ability to change that memory. Our brains are not video cameras. We do not recall events exactly as they happened, not even traumatic events, a point that is beautifully illustrated in the Robin Williams movie The Final Cut. Mr. Williams portrays a character who edits the film of people's lives for their funerals. people's recordings of their entire lives after they die. In one scene, at a funeral, a man comes up to him and asks him if he changed the color of the lamp to be blue. Williams replies, “No, I would never do that.” The man nods and walks away, mumbling something about how he could have sworn that the lamp was green. I'm sure we've all experienced something similar. We were sure we got the milk from the grocery store, or that the driveway was on the left and not the right. The point is, our memory is not perfect. (My own personal grammar Nazi put it beautifully when he said “memory is impressions, not details.”)
Memory is so changeable that even the mere suggestion that an event happened can implant a memory. In a research study done by Loftus and Pickrell(1995), researchers would give a booklet of four situations to the participants. Three of the situations did happen to the participants, the fourth didn't. The fourth situation described the participant as a five-years-old child being lost in a mall. The participants were asked to journal about what they remembered of these experiences, once a day, for five days. What researchers found was that the participants would recall vivid details about being lost in a mall, even though the situation described to them never happened. In essence, the researcher had only had to suggest that this incident did happen, and voila!-- a false memory. (This knowledge, along with a few other psychology tidbits, was enough to make me laugh heartily at the movie Inception).
Interestingly, even vivid events (those in which we are sure we remember exactly where we were, what we were wearing, whom we were with etc...) aren't specially protected by memory. Talarico and Rubin (2001) sent out questionnaires the day after 9/11/2001, asking participants where they were when they heard about the terrorist attacks. Months later, they sent out the same questionnaire and compared the answers. Surprisingly, even with such a memorable event as 9/11, people misremembered where they were when they first heard the news. Yet, over time (the researchers polled the participants a third time) the subjects became more sure of where they were (and with less accuracy). Now, don't get me wrong, there are cases of repressed memories that are true. People can remember traumatic events long after they happened. However, they are few and far between -- not at all the norm.
My point is: memory is malleable.
My second point is a little bit harder to swallow. I have a close personal friend who holds onto memories from her childhood. They cause her a lot of stress (they also strain some of her current relationships). I'll be honest, this is where my thoughts get sticky and hard to communicate fully. I understand that it can be difficult to let go of painful memories and experiences, and, if it were easy to let go, she would. My question to her and to others who are holding onto painful past experiences would be simply this: why? Why make yourself miserable over something that is not even real, anymore, and may be misremembered, anyhow? How does it serve you -- and your life?
When I was in college (although, now that I'm writing it, I wonder if it was when I was in high school) I had a professor talk about a story in which the main character was carrying luggage from one train to the next, and the next, and so on. The luggage was constantly burdening the character. The professor explained that the luggage was a metaphor for memories, memories which burdened the owner. At first I was appalled. I don't want to forget the past! My past is who I am! I've learned from my past mistakes. I need those memories! For me, I can see myself clutching at these memories that were painful and holding me back. Now I can think about my past with less emotional attachment (sometimes, not always), and I feel happier for it.
P.S. A few weeks after I wrote this blog, the universe slapped me in the face. I started to think about a friendship that ended badly. A person whom I considered a close personal friend stopped talking to me because of some drama that was going on with someone else I was close to. She was never mean or told me it was over. She simply stopped talking to me. I found myself thinking about her, wondering if she ever thinks about me. I think ultimately my feeling “stuck” in this past relationship has almost nothing to do with her, and more to do with my own feelings of inadequacy. My point is, I get that sometimes we do get stuck in the past. My question is still the same, though: Why don't we just let it go? It doesn't serve us to hold on.