Memory, Truth, and the Stories of My Life

My parents’ divorce was a textbook study in “how not to handle your divorce with your kids”. The bitterness, acrimony, and cycles of revenge lasted for decades, and led, among other things, to my decision a few years ago to have no further contact with my mother. But there were earlier periods when I asked them both questions about the whole mess, trying to understand what had happened and why. Their responses were at best confusing and contradictory. I ultimately came away with the meta-lesson that, where strong human emotions and motivations are concerned, there is no such thing as absolute truth.

If I had been able to record every moment of my life, I’d be able to play back an event, such as a marital spat, and know exactly what was said by whom. But I still wouldn’t know for sure why it was said or what the speaker was feeling at the time – even when that speaker was me.

Our emotions, decisions, and reasons are not completely comprehensible even to ourselves, even as they are occurring. Some feelings are too intense or too painful to grasp even as we are feeling them. I have had conversations (or arguments) in which I realized that, from one moment to the next, I had already erased the memory of what was just said, perhaps because it was too overwhelming. Sometimes I later recalled those words, sometimes I never did. I’m sure I remember many of my life’s events incorrectly. We all do. Under the pressures of time and emotion, events become telescoped or conflated in our minds, some are made up of whole cloth, others completely forgotten. Some are edited into a form more flattering, or at least palatable, to ourselves. As actor Willem Dafoe once said: “The bad guy never thinks he’s the bad guy.”

Recent brain research is finding that we edit our memories continuously throughout our lives, not just discarding those which are no longer important, or deleting (temporarily or permanently) those which are painful, but also re-editing and re-interpreting old memories in light of later experiences and feelings. Age means having a wealth of prior experience and knowledge against which to measure both new and old experiences. We are capable of constantly drawing new lessons from past events (when we choose to do so – that is what wisdom means, I believe).

It was a relief to me to realize that, when I share my stories, I need not strive for an objective truth that some neutral third party might agree upon – because no such objective truth is possible. Objective truth may be available about what was done or said (if we can remember accurately, or have other evidence), but not about why it was done or said.

So, let us be clear: the stories I tell do not claim to be objective recountings. These are my stories as I remember and currently interpret them. They may be subject to re-interpretation and change at any time. If you were part of any of these stories, you may or may not agree with my memory or interpretation of them. You have your own truths, just as I do. And that’s okay with me.

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