Do we go gently “into that good night”, or are we raging, “raging, raging against the dying of the light”? (Dylan Thomas) Either way, our past rises up to haunt us, endorse us, renew us. What’s interesting about its power is that we continue to try to control it, not realizing that we’re doing so until it’s too late.
What is it about our past that we hang on to? That we indulge in? That we nurture? That we use to make conversation? That we depend on for our identity? Is the past our story?
And, how accurate is our recollection of what happened eons ago? When we share our legacy or story, is it an honest reflection of who we are, and of what really took place? Is the honesty of it important?
Perhaps the chief takeaway here is our story. Have we created a story that energizes us, that teaches us, that carries us forward? Or, do we hang onto a story that limits us, degrades us, pushes us to breaking point?
Stories Are Malleable
What I have learned is that the stories we carry are Subject To Change. “Each time a memory is recalled, details are unknowingly altered. Over time, an original memory is changed.” (Brinson) Neuroscientists say that when we remember something, the memory is “reassembled from traces throughout the brain”. (Eisold)
Many people believe that memory works like a recording device. You just record the information, then you call it up and play it back… Memory works a little bit more like a Wikipedia page: You can go in there and change it, but so can other people. (Loftus)
If our story is ever changing, then what’s the purpose of memory, and why bother revisiting the past? In hopes of finding answers to how to manage our story, defining ‘past’ is a logical starting point.
Collins Dictionary says: The past is the time before the present, and the things that have happened. Your past consists of all the things that you have done or that have happened to you. Merriam-Webster agrees: Having existed or taken place in a period before the present.
Clearly, there’s a starting point and an end-point to ‘past’, with the end-point constantly changing, that end-point being the present. Based on these definitions, we can personalize the definition and discuss how the past can be meaningful.
What is our past?
The past means many things to many people. It can be:
- Our story, legacy
- A glue that binds us
- Our prologue (William Shakespeare, The Tempest)
- A scar that covers pain
- A lie
- A constant companion ― My yesterdays walk with me. They keep step, they are gray faces that peer over my shoulder. ― William Golding
- Lost ― The past is never where you think you left it. ― Katherine Anne Porter
- Frozen, no longer flowing ― C. S. Lewis
- Key to the future ― Study the past if you would define the future. ― Confucius
Making the Past Work for Us
People could find ways to unglue themselves from their negative associations with past events. ― Krauss Whitbourne
We as human beings have the capacity to “return and retroactively transform the significance of past actions and experiences.” (Tauber) Tauber goes on to say that because we have a soul, we can “travel back in time to redefine the significance of what occurred.”
It is agreed that the hard facts of an event are not subject to change, even though we may attempt to reshape those facts in some way. If we had surgery on a certain day for a certain reason by a certain medical team, or if we overslept and missed a class at school, this factual information is subject to the dictatorship of time. It’s in the remembering of the facts that sometimes a misstep occurs. It’s in the remembering of facts that we can find meaning in the past.
The Past and the Truth
We see memories as foundational for who we are. We commonly feel that we are our memories… that our memories define us. ― Charles Fernyhough
It’s entirely possible that we may not want to know the ‘truth’ about something in the past, and thereby choose to avoid it. And, there are those who insist, persist, fixate on painting the past as accurately as possible. Whatever approach underlines our desire to develop our story, whether truth seeking or truth avoidance, we strive to develop our story nevertheless.
Methods that can aid in the crafting of our story based on a more accurate recollection of past events, are:
Discuss the event with someone else.
One of the first editing jobs I had was an eleven-hundred page memoir. Years later, as I revisit this volume, I continue to be impressed with the accuracy of the details presented therein.
The autobiographer lived in a time when it was most common to share one’s story with others face-to-face. This type of direct communication allowed listeners to interject or correct a detail or two in the telling. Is it possible that this type of social communication enabled details to emerge that might otherwise have been overlooked?
Over the centuries, sharing stories face-to-face held great importance, whether as a social interaction, or in the exchange of facts. Wars were won and lost based on the spoken word. The recording of history depended on the sharing of stories. Perhaps, therefore, the memories of our predecessors were naturally more accurate when it came to recalling details because details were regularly held in check.
This could explain why the gentleman’s memoir is considered an accurate reflection of yesteryear. Not unlike ancestors in bygone days, this chap was a story-teller by nature, sitting with others at gatherings and sharing recollections of events. His recounting of history was subject to criticism and correction along the way. Even today, readers of his book discuss many of the happenings he recorded.
To underline this point, an elderly woman and family friend, died recently. In writing the obituary, her son needed to know the date of her marriage. The memoir was consulted and the fact resurrected.
Skilled police and detectives who glean facts from interviews can be viewed as a modern example of the fire-side story-filled gatherings of long ago. As these crime specialists move from one witness to the next, they extract the common denominators in each telling of an event, an honest reflection of the event then able to take shape.
Do current methods of story-telling, such as through social media and the like, insulate us from vulnerability? When we post something on Facebook, we don’t see the facial expressions, body-language, or hear the tone of voice that our listeners might transmit in response, these non-verbal reactions possibly affecting us significantly, and therefore also affecting our future recollections of an event.
Keep a Journal
The success of the gentleman’s memoir lies in his having kept a diary. Entries were short but detailed, right down to including the weather of the day.
Journals can be photographs with a note or two written on the back of the picture. They can be postings on social media sites. They can be a collection of letters written or received. They can even be stored sticky-notes and greeting cards, or a tattered notebook with scribbles and drawings.
Be Aware of Interpretation
Whatever method(s) is/are used as an aid to remembering details of an event, being aware of how we interpret the information is fundamental to future recollections. For example, if strong emotion encircles an incident, that emotion may alter the facts as we remember them. Allowing biases and/or other filters to operate while receiving information, may well cause us to miss collecting pertinent data because of our particular focus.
Creating Meaning from the Past and Moving Forward
If you can’t change it, change the way you think about it. ― C. S. Lewis
Interpreting our past in a healthy way can bring meaning and understanding of events that we have experienced. This is especially important to those of us who have suffered adversity. Following is a list of things we can do to make the most of our past, thereby creating a story we’re contented with:
- Reframe: Is there vital information about an incident that is missing from our recollection? Has a significant amount of time passed since the incident, and is it possible that the recollection has been altered along the way?
- Talk things over with someone trustworthy — Discussing a past happening with another person can be a valuable aid to reframing the incident so that it becomes a remembrance that supports us as we move forward into the future.
- Seek out new challenges that lead to growth and new experiences that will soon become new memories
- Reinforce great experiences that we have had
- Change what you can change and accept what you cannot
- Keep objective records
The Bottom Line about Our Story
It’s not possible to go back and change the hard facts of what has happened to us. What we can do is decide how our past stories work for us now, how they nurture our growing and evolving, how they carry us forward into our tomorrows.
- We can choose which of our past stories will remain constant companions as we press onward, and which ones to leave behind.
- We can decide to tell these stories or not.
- We can decide to empower the stories and let them define us, or we can disembowel them so we are freed from their clutches.
- We can learn from them and flourish, or we can wallow in them and fade.
The human spirit of survival can filter from the past what is needed and what should remain dormant. As we age, we have options which may prove especially useful. So, why not use them and have a story that nurtures us in our final years?
One cannot and must not try to erase the past merely because it does not fit the present. ― Golda Meir
No man is rich enough to buy back his past. ― Oscar Wilde
How can the past and future be, when the past no longer is, and the future is not yet? As for the present, if it were always present and never moved on to become the past, it would not be time, but eternity. ― St. Augustine of Hippo, Confessions
… “Welcome to hell!” A visible shudder ripples through my aunt’s shoulders… The train of passengers, privileged and otherwise, trudges in the rain through a corridor of guards with machine guns… Finn leans back in his chair. The acrobatic cigarette once again flips through its moves in his left hand while his right hand thumb flicks the lighter on and off. “Knives are quick, noiseless, and convenient to carry. Those guys were in and out of there before anyone would have noticed that she was slain.”… Four footsteps. I sense a presence next to me… the smell of onions and garlic… the bureau drawer sliding open… a gentle touch on my shoulder slipping down my arm… cold fingers placing something soft into my hands… It’s when she mounts the rostrum that I see her four-inch stilettos, daggers to be sure, transporting her naked, unshaven legs…
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What others have to say about aging and our past:
Brinson, S. (23 September 2015). 4 Powerful Reasons To Change The Past, With A Short Guide (as published in Brain Hacks). Retrieved 2 March 2020, from https://www.sambrinson.com/4-powerful-reasons-to-change-the-past/
Eisold PhD, K. (12 March 2012). Unreliable Memory – Why memory’s unreliable, and what we can do about it. Retrieved 2 March 2020, from Psychology Today: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/hidden-motives/201203/unreliable-memory
Etchells, P. (8 August 2016). Is your memory as accurate as you think it is? We all forget things – but are the things that we do remember as accurate as we’d like to believe? Retrieved 2 March 2020, from The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/science/head-quarters/2016/aug/08/is-your-memory-as-accurate-as-you-think-it-is
Habits for Wellbeing. (N.D.). Focusing on What We Can Control. Retrieved 2 March 2020, from Habits for Wellbeing: https://www.habitsforwellbeing.com/focusing-on-what-we-can-control/
Krauss Whitbourne Ph.D., S. (11 September 2018). You Can’t Change the Past, but You Can Rewrite Your History. Retrieved 2 March 2020, from Psychology Today: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/fulfillment-any-age/201809/you-cant-change-the-past-you-can-rewrite-your-history
Loftus, E. (2013). How reliable is your memory? (TEDGlobal) Retrieved 2 March 2020, from TED Talks: https://www.ted.com/talks/elizabeth_loftus_how_reliable_is_your_memory/up-next
NPR. (13 March 2013). Reminder: Our Memories Are Less Reliable Than We Think – Author Interviews. Retrieved 2 March 2020, from https://www.npr.org/2013/03/17/174197245/reminder-our-memories-are-less-reliable-than-we-think
Schwartz PhD, S. (19 November 2013). Do We Have Free Will? Is free choice real, or is it just an illusion? Retrieved 2 March 2020, from Psychology Today: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/proceed-your-own-risk/201311/do-we-have-free-will
Skilled at Life. (N.D.). Things We Cannot Control or Change in Life. Retrieved 2 March 2020, from Skilled at Life: http://www.skilledatlife.com/things-we-cannot-control-or-change-in-life/
Tauber, Y. (N.D.). How to Change the Past. Retrieved 2 March 2020, from Chabad.org: https://www.habitsforwellbeing.com/focusing-on-what-we-can-control/