An artist friend once told me that when it comes to paint and canvas there really are no mistakes. An unwanted detail can be altered or removed. A smudge, created through a moment of inattention, can simply be blended in with the background. Failing that, one only needs to wait until sufficient time has passed and then reapply the stroke, but this time in the correct manner. Best of all is the possibility that always exists for any of those accidents to result in an improved outcome. Perhaps the extra attention to the imperfect spot will result in finer details, better lighting or, maybe even nuances not envisioned in the original concept.
So too with memory; no recollection can be considered a finished piece. Previously unrecalled details may surface, all by themselves, revealing aspects previously unrealized. Perhaps the sharing of a memory with a friend who was also in that time and place may result in additions as their details blend with yours. There’s the very real possibility that alterations to your own situation may result in changes being made to your memories. Conscious or otherwise, sometimes this just needs to happen.
When it comes to memory it seems that most of us find ourselves on a continuum somewhere between two extremes. At the one end are those blessed/cursed with almost perfect memories. No detail is too small to be remembered. They can often tell you much of what happened to them at any particular day! More importantly, though, the stories they relate are consistent. Ask them the day after, say, they got laid off from work and they’ll re-enact the whole event painful detail by painful detail. If you happen to encounter them several years later and the lay-off incident happens to come up, they’ll again describe the event exactly as they did before; all details perfectly recalled; the incredible sense of hurt and betrayal no less intense as it was the day after it happened.
Ask a question and get an accurate, frank response. No sugar coating. Simply put, these are not the people you tend to go to when what you are seeking is unquestioning affirmation. They are, however, the ones you seek out when frankness and accuracy are what’s important.
At the other extreme are those whose memories are completely fluid. No story is exactly the same in the retelling. Details are added here, omitted there. Sometimes it seems that for those people it’s all about suiting the story to the moment, not about accurately relating any of the events as they were witnessed or experienced. These are the people you go to whenever you want help seeing the positive side of something as they tend to be especially gifted in the art of framing; of portraying particular sides to events and issues.
Most of us fall somewhere near the middle of the spectrum. We are able to recall many of the details, but by no means all. We notice this especially whenever we try and compare stories of recent events. Everyone, so it seems, remembers things differently, will emphasize different details and may attribute causes to different factors. And so it goes. Mostly it’s not much of a problem. Yes, sometimes we may argue over the finer points but mostly we find ourselves just merging “facts” supplied by others with the ones we recall. Through this, our stories evolve and drift somewhat but mostly remain true to the original.
Or so we think. (Yes–pun intended.)
Perhaps you have heard of a longitudinal study out of Harvard often referred to as the Grant study. Starting in 1938 until 1944 a group of white, male sophomores from Harvard were chosen and have been studied on a regular basis since that time. The results have been rather enlightening (especially if you are white male, one supposes) and have been often related through the popular press. If you are interested just do an internet search using the keywords grant, study and happiness and you will find loads of short articles from the popular press that outline a few key points, especially ones relating to whatever the authors have decided that happiness entails. Go ahead if you are interested…
…this little post is not about that at all. It is, rather, about memory and how recollections change over time.
Given the time at which the group was selected it so happened that many of the original participants in the study went off to fight in WW2. (I’m using some of the writings of Bessel Van der Kolk as personal references. Sample here.) Most of them survived and became part of the permanent study cohort. Shortly after they returned they were interviewed. Most related stories of the horrors of war, of how they spent so much time, scared, just fighting for survival. Overall, the dominant thinking was on how the war was such a horrific experience.
But the study proceeded, and, from time to time, the researchers would check in and re-interview the participants. In the 1990s another major round of interviews revealed an interesting item: most of the original participants’ recollections of the war had changed significantly. Rather than focusing on the horrors they’d experienced, most now spoke of how the overall experience had been one of huge personal growth. They were also exceedingly proud of the contributions they had made in the name of freedom and democracy.
Not so, though, for the ones—and this was a small minority—who we could say suffer from what we now know as post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. For those few unfortunates every horrific detail, every fearful experience was as vivid as it had been almost fifty years previous.
It seemed that those who chose to alter the narrative they related were better able to process the events, better able to get on with it. Those that did not or could not were, it seems, doomed to relive every single grim detail and remain haunted by the terrible memories for the rest of their lives.
Based on this it would be reasonable to assume that revisiting past events and modifying the overall story is not such a bad thing. That’s not to suggest that it’s healthy to selectively cull out the inconvenient parts of our past: the times we were less than completely honest, the times we made bad choices, reacted in anger, took revenge and so on. No, those need to remain, to nag at our conscience to the appropriate extent and, in so doing, hopefully sow the seeds of positive change.
Perhaps they don’t need to remain as-is, though. We change and grow as we continue on this grand journey of ours. Does the bitter pain of an unpleasant memory need to remain exactly the same long after we’ve atoned, sought forgiveness or at least made it so that past mistakes won’t be repeated? That question, of course, has no single correct all-encompassing answer (except for the mostly useless “it depends”). It is worth considering, though, from time to time whenever we take the opportunity to recall and share memories of times past.