Within the inviolable confines of a person’s inner life, should a person feel free to remember the past in whatever way they choose? Do we as individuals possess complete freedom in how we employ the capacity of memory, or are we under an obligation to do our remembering in a specific way – with fairness, accuracy, thoroughness – even when we are remembering private events and even when we are doing that remembering in private? If our memories are truly “our own,” available for us to unpack and interpret however we like, why does the past so often become a burden, a source of sadness? Why do we not use our “freedom of memory” to create a vision of the past that inspires rather than depresses us?
It’s common to think that a person’s inner life is a walled fortress – exclusive, and beyond the jurisdiction of anything external. We can influence each other to think or feel a certain way – through conversation, argument, advertisement, seduction, aggression, or kindness – but we still cannot access or control each other’s experiences directly, and that has been a basic fact of the human situation from prehistory to date. But we do have expectations of each other, not only expectations about how we should behave in public, but yes, expectations about how we might conduct our inner lives, including the way we might remember the past.
To see this, consider a scenario involving a husband and wife. After five years of marriage, the wife passes away from a sudden illness. Does the husband have the “right” to reminisce about his wife in a selective way – picturing her in her earlier health, in happier times, without also focusing on the tragedy of her death? Of course he does, and this positive approach – appreciating the good of the past, and not lingering too much on the pain – is an option that his friends and family might hope he could take – if not now, then someday – on the path to healing.
Now consider a different husband and wife, where after five years of marriage, the wife passes away but in this case it is because the husband is a violent man and he killed her. From his jail cell, does this murderer have the “right” to reminisce about his wife in a selective way, taking pleasure in the memory of their earlier relationship – without also thinking of his heinous crime? The legal system might dictate that the man should spend the rest of his life in prison, but there are no laws that govern how he should use his memory. Confined by prison walls, he is still “free” to remember whatever he wants. That said, an image of this man in his cell, pleasantly recalling his honeymoon, untroubled by what happened later, is not an image of “justice.” We would want the murderer to remember his wife, but only in the context of acknowledging and feeling remorse for his crime.
Now consider a third scenario, again a husband and wife, where after several years of happy marriage, in the fifth year they grew apart, quarreled endlessly, and divorced. Does the husband have the right to reminisce about the relationship selectively, without recalling the quarrels? If the two were to meet and jointly reminisce about their positive moments, and those alone, this could be a path to reviving the marriage. But if the husband only remembered the quarrels his wife had provoked without remembering the ones he himself had provoked, this would be gaslighting of the worst form. Selective memory seems acceptable here if it’s done fairly, if the selections are unbiased, but not otherwise.
The point of these examples is that while we might think that a person has absolute freedom over their inner life, including freedom of memory, we’re full of expectations about memory and how it should be used. When we consider people in specific circumstances, we often have an idea of how those people should undertake the process of recollection. This intuitive sense of there being a right and a wrong way to remember affects our own process of remembering too. And that’s only natural. Memory may seem to be a private matter but to the extent we communicate about our memories and express the feelings they inspire, those memories have an impact beyond the self.
Perhaps a reason why we are concerned with the accuracy of memory – why we are afraid of delusion, so to speak – is because we want to stay connected to other people. Shared memories bring us closer but when we remember things in completely different and contradictory ways, it drives us apart. If we felt free to alter our memories in whatever way we pleased, it would lead eventually to isolation. We could create a utopia of omissions and confabulations, yes, but then we wouldn’t understand each other and we wouldn’t understand ourselves – how we got to where we are.
I have a friend whose ability to focus on fun and positive things, while downplaying the “memory” of his obligations, might be leading him to debt and financial disaster. So there are good reasons why we should want to practice a kind of memory hygiene and why we might feel compelled to remember things in a way that seems honest and accurate, fair and comprehensive. But the burden we feel about memory, the constraints we place upon ourselves as remembering beings, can lead to a topsy-turvy situation. In our efforts to remember things “properly” we may become cut off from the aspects of the past that might help us the most.
We’re all seeking positive experiences in life, right? We all want good things to happen to us. And you’d think that the more positive experiences a person has had, the better off they’d be. Now, it’s to be expected that sad memories would make us sad: if something unfortunate occurs, and then passes, the pain of it can still be revived – that’s what memory is. But if a person is fortunate enough to repeatedly attain those good experiences that they hoped for, the net effect of all that goodness should be to put them in a happier state – doesn’t it seem like that?
Yet we find that good things cause pain to recall as well. How is that? Why do happy memories make us cry? Why is it that these good experiences we’re seeking can turn into memories that drag us down, depress us, make us unhappy?
Of course it’s because the memory of a good thing creates a sense of loss if we don’t have that good thing anymore and if we see no prospect of regaining it. My mother told me the other day that when she thought of our old house with my stepdad and my brother living there, she felt such unbearable sadness that she didn’t know how to cope. And I understood. It’s because my stepdad and my brother passed away last year, 2022, and they’re not coming back. To think of that happier time in the old house when our family was intact makes the present time feel all the more empty for my mother, and for me.
But I am trying to help my mother through this, so it’s my role to see things in a way that could be comforting. When she said this, and when I thought of those good times in the old house, one fact stood out to me: they were good. Those moments of family closeness were the kind of experience that everyone seeks. How can it be that having had those good experiences – decades of them – now creates anguish, consigns us to sadness and pain? Shouldn’t it be that the good things in our past actually help us and give us hope for the future? And wouldn’t our family members who have passed away want this much for us, that we could find consolation in our memories of them, and that the happy times of the past could benefit us now, rather than seeming to drag us down in our time of need?
I know that healing takes time – an indefinite amount – and I know that these few questions are no magical cure for grief. I tried to bring it up gently with my mother, that maybe there’s a way to open ourselves more to the good of the past without seeing so much of the darkness, but it will be hard and cannot be rushed. So I’d like to consider a situation that is much further in the past, where my own grief has had time to play out.
One of the happiest moments in my life was developing a fascination with theoretical computer science in college and eventually getting accepted into a PhD program in that subject, at MIT in 1998. That was twenty-five years ago. I had found my path. I had figured out who I wanted to be and what work I wanted to do. I would be joining a community of scholars and looking forward to a life of intellectual stimulation and discovery.
That was a “triumph” and you would think that having had this triumph should serve me well, giving me confidence about my future. But when I remember that time in my life, I feel an obligation to be complete, to not cherry-pick the good moments. It seems pretty important to also remember that I dropped out after two years and the direction of my life changed. This brings up a sense of loss for what I could have had. Yes, things worked out pretty well in the end and I’ve had many blessings. Yes, I know how to take a positive view of my life and I’m able to feel good about where I am now. But there’s still a little bit of effort involved in maintaining a positive narrative. So many years after my life changed course, it can still feel like I am defending my choice to myself, and that’s tiring.
What would be so wrong about my remembering that time in 1998 – when I got into grad school and was full of excitement and energy for my path forward – without bringing any attention to the fact that I dropped out in the year 2000? What would be so wrong about focusing only on that positive moment in 1998 and deriving joy and inspiration from it without feeling the need to consider the full picture of how my academic story ended? What would be so wrong about feeling that pride again without deciding immediately that it must be canceled out by the memory of what happened next? The point of this would not be to confabulate, it would not be to imagine that I had stayed in school. Rather, the point would be to stop thinking so much about what happened later and instead to appreciate the beginning as an isolated moment in time.
Of course, nothing would be wrong with doing this, because although we have expectations of ourselves regarding memory – we also have a “freedom of memory” that we don’t always avail ourselves of.
And why don’t we avail it? There is a fine line between remembering something in the solitude of one’s mind and rehearsing the way we might explain it to another person – for me, these are much the same. Perhaps I constrain my own reminiscence by my sense of what other people would understand if I were telling it to them. While thinking back to my excitement and joy in 1998 I might be tempted to share it aloud with someone else, though there might be no one in the room, but if there were, they’d say “So what happened next, how did it go?” and I’d then have to explain it. Even if I have no intent to actually voice my reminiscence, I might still feel I need to prepare that explanation, just in case. And this is interesting, because it means that my own understanding of myself is shaped by my idea of what other people would understand.
There’s also a sense that I need to be complete in my recollection so the story will make sense to me. How did I get to where I am now? If I were to selectively focus on my joy in 1998 without also drawing any attention to my choice in 2000, it would be exceedingly difficult to understand why I’m not in a university right now doing research and teaching, but instead I’m a free agent… writing essays like this one, taking photographs, trying to make music.
Third, there may be a dynamic that’s similar to the “murderer” scenario from before, where although I committed no crime whatsoever in dropping out, I am still responsible for the outcome of the situation. There’s a feeling that I must own my role in it. The excitement of my grad-school entrance is not my “right” to feel anymore. I don’t “get” to enjoy that happiness anymore because it was I who “threw it all away.” So the story goes.
This tangle of thoughts surrounding past events and how I should recall them seems almost impossible to unravel at times. And this is where meditation has offered me a new option in the past year that I was never aware I had before. Meditation teaches me that I can let all of my inner narration quiet down and turn to silence – not being resolved or sorted out but simply being left to dissipate. In the context of meditation, we can direct our focus to a chosen object in memory, contemplating that one thing alone, and releasing all of the thoughts and mental chatter that it triggers.
If I’m remembering my life publicly, I should not omit all the negatives to create a story full of convenient holes, but meditation is a safe context in which to avail the freedom of memory, to use my memory in whatever way I might find healing.
Here is a meditation exercise I am using. First, I think of the good beginnings I’ve experienced in the course of my life so far. As I do this, I try to notice the “buts” that follow. It might go like this:
I got into grad school BUT I dropped out. I wrote a novel BUT I abandoned it. I started a startup BUT it failed. I released a music album BUT no one noticed. I wrote an essay BUT no one read it.
Next, I remove the buts:
I got into grad school. I wrote a novel. I started a startup. I released an album. I wrote an essay.
Finally, I see if it’s possible to savor the feelings of those beginnings, and to acknowledge I am the same person who had the passion and initiative to start all those things and I still have that passion and initiative. It makes me feel like myself again.
The value of an exercise like this is that it can help us reclaim the benefits of good things that have happened in our lives — the pleasures that have been obscured, the achievements that we are now disconnected from, the relationships that couldn’t continue. Instead of being burdened by the riches of the past, we can draw strength from those people, events and experiences. We can let them help us. This doesn’t make it unnecessary to think about the outcomes that didn’t go as we hoped – to examine and learn from those outcomes – but there is a time and place for that learning. If we can think of the beginnings without the outcomes for just a moment, we can see that there is more goodness in our past than we are appreciating, and there is more to be proud of than we are allowing for. It is within this pride, rather than in any regret which clouds it, where we can find the surest impetus to learn.
It is as if each of us is carrying a treasure chest of positive experiences, but it is heavy and it is closed, and it’s draining our strength. Our best experiences have turned into problems, their value has turned into a cost.
What we can do is set the chest down and open it and enjoy the sparkle of the jewels inside. Then with the chest lying on the floor, still open, we can walk forward, and keep walking, and notice that we don’t have to carry the chest. Magically, those jewels follow us wherever we go.