I remember two things from first grade (which was my initial exposure to formal education since our school district didn’t offer kindergarten):
- being the only boy who wore shorts the first day of school; and
- losing my Mickey Mouse watch on the playground (or it may have been Donald Duck, I’m not sure).
Everything else is a blur.
The first was a source of embarrassment, which is ironic considering my year-round Colorado uniform these days is shorts and sandals. I got over the embarrassing thing. The second memory was traumatic as well. That watch was so cool. Losing it meant my world had come to an end at an early age, or so I thought.
So, you might be thinking, what’s the big deal? I survived. Yes, I did, although that doesn’t mean there wasn’t deep scaring. But probably not.
The big deal is this: you can’t trust your memory. The danger lies in not being mindful of that fact.
I won’t bother you with citations to all the scientific studies that verify this point. You can look them up yourself. But trust me: they exist.
Trauma tends to sear itself into our memory banks. Hence, the only two memories I have of first grade involved emotional trauma. The same goes for second grade. Again, two memories stand out: (1) missing half a day of school because my eyes were swollen shut from poison ivy and (2) a classmate locking himself in the restroom. The latter situation had obvious potential dire consequences for the rest of us.
Other more significant traumas stand out. There was the day I was home alone with my mother the day she had a miscarriage. It seems like it happened yesterday. There was the time mom got a phone call telling her my Uncle Bruce (her brother) had died. There was the time my babysitter’s blouse caught on fire (gas kitchen range). There was the time my aunt and cousin were killed in an auto wreck. There was the time I and my fellow fifth-grade jokesters got caught putting tacks on other kids’ chairs (although the joy we derived from the girls’ reactions probably made it all worthwhile). I remember when my hero died (Roberto Clemente). I think you get the point. I’ll leave out the juicier stuff (privacy concerns, you know).
It’s not that I don’t recall any of the good times. I do. But, clearly, the ratio of recalled-to-forgotten is much higher for the bad or traumatic memories. When it comes to memories, bad seems to be stickier than good.
Recall isn’t the only problem with memories. There is also the issue of reliability. In short, memories are highly unreliable. Again, if you don’t believe me, check out the research.
We tend to mold our memories over time. Not surprisingly, we tend to make ourselves look better in our memories. Who can blame us? Why not feed our egos by tinkering with our memories? After all, they’re ours. We should be allowed to do with them as we please. Unfortunately, it’s not a matter of choice; it’s done subconsciously. We deceive ourselves without even trying.
If I ever served on a jury, I’d never convict anyone solely on the basis of eye-witness testimony. We know it’s unreliable. Yet we’ve sent people to the gallows on nothing more.
Why? Why do we think our memories are more reliable than they are? Is it because we like to think we’re more perfect beings than we truly are? Why do we have such a hard time owning up to our imperfections?
I don’t know, and I’m not sure I care either. But I do know it’s something of which to be mindful. It helps keep hubris in check and nourishes humility. And, goodness knows, most of us would be better served by a better-fed humility gene.
With time (i.e., not everything is bad about growing old, just most things), I’ve learned that, if you want to remember some event or occurrence accurately, you’d better take contemporaneous notes. Photos might be a good idea, too (although the millennials may be taking this a bit too far). (New rule: no more than one selfie per week.)
Some people take notes daily. They call it journaling. When I was a kid, I tried to keep a diary. I was never able to sustain the practice. As an adult, I’ve dabbled at journaling from time to time. It didn’t go well. Perhaps it’s because I hate routine. I get bored easily. The thought of doing the same thing every day makes my skin crawl. Perhaps it’s also because I’m uncomfortable with the idea of someone reading my private thoughts (which is one of the reasons I’ve burned most of my journals). Trust me, you don’t want to know some of the things I think (ironic given the name of this blog).
Yet I suppose I regret not taking more notes and retaining them. I wish I could recall more vividly how it felt at the time. I’d like to recall more vividly and accurately what I thought and how I felt when man first walked on the moon. When I held pointy-headed, adorable Andrew for the first time (your mom’s fault, not yours). When David hit his first home run. When I had that mysterious ground-shattering vision (dream?) in the ’90s. When I saw you, Vera, for the first time.
Is it crucial to have these memory joggers? No. But it would be nice to have something in my own handwriting to read — to step back in time without memory’s fog.
When I return to repeat the human life experience after this dry-run is over (which is the way it should be in my opinion), I think I’ll take more notes — not of all the relatively unimportant stuff that made its way into notes the first time around (I’m referring to much of the boring, relatively unimportant stuff in school); rather, notes of the really good, important stuff that happened. The life-changing events. The moments when the pulse beat just a bit stronger. When the sun seemed to shine a bit brighter. When everything seemed just right.
If I had notes, I think I’d have a better understanding of myself and perhaps be more grateful for all the amazing experiences, and less scarred by all the seemingly traumatic experiences, life has thrown my way. At the very least, I’d have a more accurate account of some of the major events in my life and would be less susceptible to the tricks and deceit of my brain. And perhaps I would have learned more along the way (or, at least, more readily).
At the very, very least, I could sit and read and smile. And laugh. And cry (the good kind). And be reminded of the magnificence of life. And be grateful.
The bottom line, Vera, is that, perhaps, it would be good to take some notes. But if you choose not to, then at least be mindful that memories are not to be trusted. They’re selective. They’re unreliable. They’re the product of a brain that can’t resist the urge to mold reality to that which we’d like it to be. And the brain forgets a lot of great stuff.
Jot that down.