I have a tendency to rewrite history. For example, my wife Ari and I will talk about a family trip with our two kids, and I’ll say what a wonderful time we had and how fantastic the kids were.
With an incredulous look, she’ll ask me if I remember when Tam (our three-year old) woke up five times during the night. Or if I’ve forgotten when Hannah (our five-year-old daughter) refused for half an hour to get out of the swimming pool. “Really?” I’ll reply, “I don’t remember that part.”
Some might call this naiveté. I prefer to think of it as a way of making the most of the power of memory. We are what we remember.
Memory is always selective. Some of the process of remembering is unconscious. Certain events stick out regardless whether we want them to or not. Yet, we hold a great deal of power in determining what our memories mean.
So long as we do not distort what happened, we can reframe our memories in a positive way. How do we do this?
- Talk about the positive. In Jewish tradition we hold an annual meal called the Passover seder. Eating from a variety of symbolic foods, we tell the story of the Exodus from slavery in Egypt. In doing so, we could choose to remember all the bitterness and horrors of slavery. It was four hundred years of oppression.
Yet, recounting the period of slavery takes up just a small part of the ceremony. Most of it focuses on the sweetness of freedom, the imperative to help the oppressed of our time, and the responsibility to tell the story of the Exodus to the next generation.
- Write a gratitude journal. Writing about an event shapes the way we remember it. It helps us determine its meaning. We can apply this truth in so many ways.
Every night before bed, for example, I sit with my kids and ask them three things they are grateful for. Even if they had a tough day, focusing on the positive parts of the day reframes it. They often go to sleep with a laugh or smile.
- Let time work its magic. Mark Twain famously said that “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.” When something bad happens to us, we often feel as if it is the end of the world.
I see this quite frequently among my high school students if they get a low grade on a test. Yet, after a few days or weeks, the test is forgotten.
The same is often true with us. What seems awful now becomes manageable, or even positive, later. Perspective can change the meaning and relative significance of the past.
- Write the story of which you want to be a part. A rabbinic mentor once told me to “make up a good story, a noble prevarication, about your congregation and tell it to anyone who will listen. Even if it’s not true, after a few years, people will try to live up to it.”
He captured an essential truth about people. We live up to the narratives we tell ourselves. We make decisions and act in certain ways because it fits into our story. If we change that story, we can change our lives.
A decision once thought of as a failure can become a learning experience. A painful ending to a relationship can become an experience when we learned about ourselves and what we need from a spouse or partner.
“Life,” philosopher Soren Kierkegaard once said, “is lived forward and understood backward.” The power to understand the backward part of lives lies within us. We can’t change what happened, but we can change what it means. What we choose to remember helps shape who we decide to become.