The Tyranny of Memory

We fear losing it as we age. We take supplements to boost it. We buy books and listen to programs to improve it.

Since my guest post about Childhood Memory on Lori Gosselin’s blog, Life, for instance, I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of memory in our lives. I also posted a follow-up article to that guest post, exploring two other general memories that helped shape the man I am today.

But memory can also work against us, tying us to old beliefs, daily ratifying suspicions of self-doubt, curdling the good of life as it rises to the surface as anger and bitterness, trapped in memories of pain and offense, of abuse and neglect.

In such cases, memory becomes insidious, eating away like tiny incessant termites gnawing at the structure of our lives, destabilizing relationships, fracturing foundations of self-worth and making our efforts at happiness brittle at best.

And so we reach for success and the memory of failure pulls us down. We try something new and the memory of ridicule knocks us backwards. We set goals to overcome and the memory of rejection screams, “IMPOSSIBLE!” We try to love and the memory of hate and abuse robs us of confidence and trust and patience and the gentleness needed to love as we would like to love.

And then so many simply give up.

Please don’t.

There are ways to untether our lives from the drag of bad memory.

Three Ways of Ending the Tyranny of Memory

#1: Shrink the memory

Let the creativity of your mind relegate your bad memories to the outer regions of thought. Shrink them and let them fade and fall. See them melt away in your mind’s eye as you step further and further away from them. Let the pain fade to the background and the images of past insult become indistinct and small and muffled in your imagination.

#2: Replace Painful Memories with Bold New Memories

Were you abused? Then love your kids all the more and form those memories as anchors in your mind. Let them literally push out the old memories of pain and humiliation. Take your kids to the park, get in tickle fights with them, play tag and read books and do all the things you didn’t have as a kid. Cherish them, hug and hold them, fill them up with joy.

But be patient with them, forgive them, respect them. Then blow up those memories in your mind. When you’re at the park, don’t dwell on the dark memory of never having been taken to the park. Instead, remember the last time you took your kids to the park. Train your brain to reflexively go there instead of the bad memories of yesteryear.

#3: Reinterpret the Memory

Our memories do not exist in a vacuum. They are extensions of our interpretations, colored by the accuracy (or inaccuracy) of those memories. They also come with context. People who treated us in ways that hurt lived lives that we may not be fully aware of – even if those people are our closest relatives. So much of our lives are often buried in the chambers of our hearts, only partially revealed.

Given these facts, there are steps you can take to change the influence your memories have on you. If your thoughts are filled with the pain of angry and insulting words, broken hearts and invisibility, you can learn to change the nature of that memory. Instead, come to see the offender as a broken human being, trapped in skin that houses a degree of self-disgust and inner turmoil that can’t truly ever be fully understood.

Perhaps we can replace the internalization of motherly or fatherly abuse with compassion and a deep realization that it was a reflection of their inner turmoil rather than an accurate assessment of your personality and character and worth. The “it-was-them-not-me” epiphany can be quite liberating.

#4: Be Present

The more you live in memory, the more right-now-ness you lose. The more right-now you are, here, in the moment, focused on what is happening, divorced from the distraction of memory, the weaker the influence memory has.

If painful memories are wreaking havoc in your life, learn to spend more and more of your time in the here-and-now. Don’t let your mind wander (remember, you hold the key!). Be intensely aware of what you are doing, who you are watching, what they are doing, what you are feeling, how things are being done now, as you watch and interact and communicate and do the things you do.

As your child speaks to you, for example, be deeply interested in what he is saying. Listen to the words being said, how they are being said. Hear how they stumble out of unpracticed lips. Listen to the voice they travel through the air on. Watch his eyes, his lips, his facial muscles flicker and twitch as he excitedly shares his little heart and soul with you.

It’s that kind off focused concentration on the moment right under your feet that will keep you grounded in the right-now-ness of living, which is, of course, the mortal enemy to memory. The more you can learn this art of present-ness, the weaker the hold your memories will have on you.

Brief word: Some of you may have harbored up the memory of your pain for so long and so completely that it feels like it has become part of your identity. Reading this may have made you angry or annoyed. That’s fine. But remember, pain does not equal identity. It can come to seem and feel as such by habitual association, but it’s not who you are. It is what you’ve experienced.

But you don’t have to continue experiencing it indefinitely. There can be release.

Final thoughts

Memory can deepen joy and happiness as we struggle through life, remembering our children’s births, their birthdays and our anniversaries. Special days bring special memories that fill us with moments of warmth and love and appreciation.

But while memory can strengthen and inspire us, it can also weaken and sadden us. For far too many, memory is a weight that pulls and drags them down. Their memories are dark and sad and lonely and painful, filled with images that pinch and scrape at their hearts.

But ultimately, we can learn to choose the role memory plays in our lives. As we work at the roles and methods for overcoming the pull of painful memories and free ourselves of that weight in our lives, you will be better able to master the challenges that lie ahead. And start to fill your life with the now of living!

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