There's an old saying which posits that, if you want your kids to remember you, then cut them out of your will. Maybe that solution is a bit extreme, but today's parents face challenges in finding things to pass on to their children, in part because kids now have such easy access to knowledge. With its instantaneously responsive and non-judgmental qualities, the Internet has displaced daddies and mommies to become the primary purveyor of factoids. But all is not lost because one thing that parents can still pass on to future generations is an appreciation of memory.
I began to think about memory and memories last week while attending a medical conference on -- hope this isn't too much of a downer -- treating brain tumors. Radiation therapy is relatively effective against many cancers that arise in the brain, but we worry about treatment causing decline of cognitive ability, particularly recall and recollection. The good news from the conference concerns a breakthrough technology that allows for sparing of the "hippocampus," the brain structure that controls memory. The new technique may save patients from the anguish of having to decide between adding a few months of survival to their prognosis or losing a few IQ points.
Most of us cherish our memories. To exist without memory can be to live a life that is, in a sense, anesthetized. Indeed, when anesthesiologists first used ether, the gas was heralded as eliminating both experience and memory. When most people reflect on what truly scares them about the possibility of developing a dementia, it includes the notion of having to proceed without the comfort of their memory collection. Our humanity is arguably defined by, and certainly enhanced by, our capacity to form and then transmit personal memories, particularly to our children, to hand down the family story of who we are and from where we’ve come.
If we set out to take inventory, there are many ways to categorize our gifts of memory. Let’s consider four options.
First, there are positive memories. The good times. Driving up the California coast and marveling at Big Sur. Winning a basketball championship in eighth grade. Getting tenure. Escorting a child to the wedding altar. We all have our own personal nuggets, and it's wonderful to be able to access them when we want or need an infusion of joy. Some can make valuable gifts to pass on to the future.
Second, there are "false memories". I use quotation marks, because false memories are a special type of memory that is simultaneously not real yet quite real. And they’re an aspect of memory that, while deceptive, can be also creative. I'm not referring simply to things that we don't remember accurately as our ability to recall erodes. Rather, false memories reflect the ability of the mind to reconfigure events in ways that have never, in fact, occurred.
For example, when I get together with relatives or old friends from high school, we might sit around reminiscing about a funny story. All is congenial until maybe an inconsistency develops when different people relate their recollections of a certain event. I’ve witnessed some rather unpleasant instances where people have been accused of fabricating or outright lying.
Rarely, though, is there nefarious intent. In our little get-togethers, none of us has set out to write an official Time-Life history book. We’re merely telling informal tales that diverge simply because each of us recalls an event in our own way. We each hear things differently, emphasize different things and, so, develop different memories. The differences can be a source of dissension or celebration. The choice is up to us. False memories, can be a rich and valuable reservoir of perspectives on whom we are and the nature of our narratives.
My third classification is the unpleasant memory that we want to retain because it offers some benefit. For me, the most classic example is my father's death at the age of 52, when I was just eleven. There is hardly a more challenging moment on any personal level for me. Yet, that memory serves as the essence of my blogging experience here. I’m using the recollection to explore and come to understand how that cataclysmic event affects me and what I might share from the experiences. Every time I think about dad's suffering and my memories of growing up without him, I feel not only pain but opportunity for growth. If we’re willing to think about them, probably we all have analogous traumas, tensions, and conflicts that could serve similar purpose. We can choose not only to hang on to our painful-yet-constructive memories but also to pass the insights and lessons forward.
Finally, there are unpleasant memories which we must let go. They include super-painful experiences that are too caustic to bring us benefit as well as smaller scale recollections of events that simply get under our skin, like, the disappointment we experience when someone has wronged us with, perhaps, a public insult or some other, minor assault on our ego. Or maybe someone didn't come through when we thought they could have extended themselves more. If we cling to that type of memory, then we're probably either feeling sorry for ourselves or holding a grudge against someone else. We might benefit from discarding those memories by purposely activating our power of forgetfulness. We may fret over the loss of more neurons each day as we grow older, but there can be value to letting go and forgetting as well as to passing that skill on to our children.
So, those are my ways of categorizing memory and some of my thoughts about the value of memories, to ourselves and to the future. What about you? Do you have a different filing system? And what are the memories that you'd like to relinquish or preserve, or pass forward to tomorrow?
Click here to return to Blog home page