The Gratitude Challenge’s thirtieth topic is “Memories”.
Memories… If we said „there is no truth” in the previous post, it is even more … erm… “true” for memories. Once in our mind, events seem to undergo a constant process of reinterpretation. Our memories are not an exact representation of what happened, but it seems we are counterbalancing the fading details with a lot of additional romance . Eventually we will look back at an event and feel nostalgia (a phenomenon known as rosy retrospection in psychology).
We will be grieving over the past that is now gone and maybe wish something or someone to come back. But the curious thing with nostalgia is that in the instances in which our wish comes true we are often also not happy. We can trick ourselves into believing the unmatched romance of our memories – until they become reality again and only then do we realize that our memories are far from an accurate representation:
The loss of the nostalgia-that is, the loss of the desire to long for what is lost because one has found the lost object-can be more unwelcome than the original loss itselfIvy, M. (1995). Discourses of the Vanishing: Modernity, Phantasm, Japan. University of Chicago Press, p. 10
Besides, how we perceive our past – how we interpret our memories – says a lot about our general outlook on life.
Sometimes I catch myself thinking “if I had not stopped playing the drums at the age of 19 and practised more before, I would be so good at it now; if I had started to play the clarinet when my grandpa was still alive, I could have learnt from him”. But is it worth to feel regret for this? Is such thinking not rather an excuse to no try anymore because we tell ourselves that now it’s too late?
Of course, if life and death are involved, it might feel more “reasonable” to feel regret – after all, even if we try hard, a deceased person won’t come back. But for how long do we grieve over a past event? I do think it is good to not suppress such feelings, as I tend to do. I distract myself; I force myself to “look forward” when in fact I’m not looking anywhere, I just close my eyes. I go as far as trying to rebuild my memories, telling myself that past events, past partners were all bad anyway – just so that it hurts less that those episodes of my life are over. I do everything to escape unpleasant feelings.
From afar, I can seem like a very positive person, apparently believing that everything that happened in the past was for a good reason, no need to grieve over a loss.
But in fact, it is nothing else than numbing myself and forcing sadness into a dark corner.
I recently participated in an art therapy that a friend of mine organized. I had not drawn anything since childhood and joined the activity thinking that it would be fun to be with other people and to try out something new. But instead, I realized that feeling the brush slowly moving over the paper is like a long meditation where at the same time I can express my feelings directly in colour and strokes. I turned very sad. It seemed to bring me to one of those dark corners which I usually try stay far away from.
Later I asked my life coach what’s the point even in working on my past and doing exercises to become aware of my memories’ impact, when the realization and awareness just make me sad. His answer was that even if we ignore them and are not aware of their existence or impact, it still very much influences our present. I think that’s true. Even though we bury the poison somewhere deep inside, out of sight, it will still make us sick.
Of course, memories are not only sneaky bits in our brain that try to make us believe that the past was much better than the future. Yet for me it is very easy to feel nostalgic. I’m very sensitive to scents; many times they bring back memories. The same with songs. Music beams us back, within a split second the emotions from years or decades ago are back, we turn into a younger self. The same with tastes. What we call “soul food” or “comfort food” is the attempt to create tastes and smells that bring back memories of innocent times that were free of sorrow – or at least that’s what our brain makes us remember.
Sometimes we perceive an event as “normal”, not particularly special in the moment we experience it, but only in hindsight do we understand or attribute the special meaning. After having had such realizations repeatedly, I’m sometimes afraid that I’m not savouring a moment enough, I’m afraid I just can’t see how special it is. Many times, we do not know in the moment that it is the last time we talk to someone. That it is the last time we give someone a kiss. That we pass carefree times with a special group of people who will never come back in that constellation and in that mindset.
This feeling of late realization and long-lasting regret seems to resonate with many people. The highly popular song “Changes” by Black Sabbath expresses it very well:
It took so long to realiseBlack Sabbath – Changes (Verse 3)
And I can still hear her last goodbyes
Now, all my days are filled with tears
Wish I could go back and change these years
I think it’s good to be more aware and treat moments as if they were the last moment of that kind – which in a way is always true, because no two moments are identical. But ironically, as I’m afraid in the present to not understand the meaningfulness of a moment pulls me out of it and makes me less aware. Still, such situations help me to reinforce the relevance of the admittedly somewhat trivial phrase that we should live every moment to its fullest.
Some memories also help me to connect the present with my past and help me to go beyond the feeling of nostalgia and form my presence and future with something meaningful.
My grandfather was a conductor and taught the clarinet and the saxophone. His father was a dance instructor. My grandfather gave me my first instruments, a tambourine, bongos, a drum set. While I did enjoy music well into my teenage years, it was never a priority, and it did not very obviously connect me so much more to my grandfather. But subconsciously, music formed a strong bond between us.
Only now that I started to bring back music into my life do I feel and realize this. Suddenly I need to think of my grandfather so often. I do feel regret for not having learnt more from him, but I also can appreciate what I did already learn, for example the beauty of music. For some reason, I feel a strong pull towards learning the clarinet. I feel it is a bond that he built in the past, and even though I was not ready to make use of it back then, he planted the seed and slowly, over many many years, it finally grew and is it found me to be ready to take care of it, the seedling finally resurfaced .
Memories also help us to learn from mistakes or remind us of wisdom. I remember how my grandfather once said, “Every single person has something that you can learn from them, and even if it’s only how not to do something”. To this day I need to think of this many times, it helps me to keep arrogance and hybris in check and to instead approach people with more respect, to be humble rather than judgmental. At least that’s what I’m trying…
I’m thankful for having memories, for having a brain that allows me to keep them, even if it alters them considerably. I’m grateful for the feeling of nostalgia, grateful for allowing myself more and more to also just glide into a bath full of sorrow, almost deriving joy from it, but then emerging with more lightness and positivity – this time an authentic positivity rather than an enforced one that I built just to avoid the feeling of sorrow. I’m grateful for the healthy seeds that the past brought me and grateful for the bravery to work on becoming aware of the dark corners that I ignored for so long so that I can find and discard of the poison.
當他們轉身走遠王榆鈞 (Wáng Yújūn) – 假面遊行 (Masked Parade); based on a poem by 吳俞萱 (Wú Yúxuān)
It wasn’t until they turned and walked away
That I finally quietly said:
Please forgive that I never revealed my true self
Just regard it as if I’ve been sick all these years