We Are What We Remember

Rabbi Evan Moffic is the senior rabbi of Congregation Solel in Highland Park, Illinois, which serves five hundred families across Chicago and its northern suburbs. You can read his blog or follow him on Twitter.

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.

A Photo Album - Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/urbancow , Image #16811435

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/urbancow

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?

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

Question: How can your memories positively impact you and your future? You can leave a comment by clicking here.
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  • http://www.facebook.com/steve.martin.10485 Steve Martin

    Our memories can be a wonderful and encouraging thing, that’s for sure.

    But they can also dog us and bring us down (and there may a good purpose for that). That we might realize the harm we have done and that has been done to us…so that we might realize that we have not lived up to God’s perfect standard for our lives, and have some remorse.

    And in that remorse, realize that we will be judged some day, for every bit of it.

    That may be a terrifying realization.

    But the good news, the really good and comforting news, is that the one who died on the cross for us, is the same One who will be judging us. And in Christ Jesus He has promised to remember our sins no more.

    Thanks.

    theoldadam.com

    • rabbimoffic

      Thanks for reminding us to look at the whole picture!

  • http://blog.cyberquill.com/ Cyberquill

    This post recalls to my mind the lyrics to The Green, Green Grass of Home

    • rabbimoffic

      Nice connection!

  • http://www.generouscuriosity.com/ Aaron Coon

    A great reminder. The past is the past and it is up to us to either learn from failure or wallow in it. I like that point you made at the end. I think too many people live with the “woulda” “shoulda” “coulda” mindset, and need to stop blaming the past, and instead need to learn from it and start living in the present ready for the future. Great post, it gives us all a lot to think about!

    • rabbimoffic

      Thanks!

  • Heind35

    My mother passed away when I was 11, greatly affecting my life.  I try to turn it into a positive and a learning experience now, in that I try to take care of myself so I can be around for my children alot longer than my mother was able to be around for me.

    • http://www.MicheleCushatt.com/ Michele Cushatt

       Great way to reframe (and give purpose to) a difficult loss.

    • rabbimoffic

      What a positive way to reshape your story. 

  • http://jonstolpe.com/ Jon Stolpe

    Two weeks ago, I started a blog series called “I Remember When…”  So far I’ve posted two posts in this series.  The first was about learning to ride a bike, and the second was about my family’s move from the Midwest to the East Coast.  Remembering our past can be a healthy exercise.  I love the perspective that we have years later.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      That’s a great series idea, Jon. Thanks.

    • rabbimoffic

      That is a wonderful idea! One of the gifts of being a rabbi is getting to hear people’s memories, especially of loved ones who have recently passed away, and I can hear about the way they journeyed through and made sense of life. 

      • http://jonstolpe.com/ Jon Stolpe

         My Dad is a pastor, and he gets many of the same opportunities.

  • http://www.dianeyuhas.com/ Diane Yuhas

    Yes! Sometimes in the midst of the most horrible, no-good day, I’ve found myself thinking, “There’s going to come a time when this will be incredibly funny.” 

    • http://www.MicheleCushatt.com/ Michele Cushatt

       True! The worst of days makes for great material.

    • rabbimoffic

      That’s where the good stories come from!

  • http://chrisvonada.info/ chris vonada

    Love this positive twist on the past!

    I always try to think of the life I live something like #4… When I go through my daily walk, I want to be able to tell the whole story… therefore, I focus on trying to do positive things and steer clear of the sinful stuff.

    • rabbimoffic

      Thanks. We can always lift our life story to a higher perspective that can help us make sense of it. 

  • http://successbeginstoday.org/wordpress John Richardson

    They say that time heals all wounds. I think there is a lot of truth in that. As long as we are willing to forgive. 

    • rabbimoffic

      That’s right, though forgiving can be harder than reframing. 

  • Kim

    Because of my difficult start in life, my memories always bring me to a place of immense gratitude. And that is a good place to be in.
    Thanks for sharing Michael!

    • http://www.MicheleCushatt.com/ Michele Cushatt

       Gratitude is the secret sauce, isn’t it?

      • rabbimoffic

        Absolutely. If I could summarize the secret to happiness in one word, it’s gratitude. In traditional Judaism, the first prayer we say in the morning is “Modeh Ani L’Fanecha,” which is Hebrew for “I am grateful to stand before you, Oh God.”

  • http://www.endgamebusiness.com/blog Steve Borek

    Leverage memories to quickly change your behavior. Example. Let’s say you’re standing in line behind a shopper that’s holding up the check out line. Instead of stewing about the situation, (we’ve all done it) think of a pleasant memory. Before you know it, the cashier will be scanning your items and you’ll be heading out the door.

    • rabbimoffic

      Nice!

  • annepeterson

    Thank you so much for this post. I have struggled with my past and all the losses I’ve experienced. The explanation of why the Exodus is given such a small segment to the Passover seder really hit me. 

    Proverbs 3:27 says, “As a man thinks in his heart so is he.” We can keep stuck if we believe that’s all we deserve. You said you rewrite history. I end movies the way I want in my mind. But, I never did that with the reality of my life. Even with the scripts I write for others, I am never the heroine. If I started believing perhaps I could succeed, I am quickly refuted by all the negative things others have said stored in my mind. I am going to do a rewrite. Thank you.

    • http://www.MicheleCushatt.com/ Michele Cushatt

      Yes, rewrite! Prov. 3:27 is a great verse to have a note card on my desk at all times. Thanks for sharing it.

    • rabbimoffic

      Rewriting is never easy. It takes time and commitment, and sometimes we take two steps forward and one step back. But it can transform us. 

  • http://www.authorpeterdehaan.com/ Peter DeHaan

    I’m glad to be reminded that I can choose to remember the positive or the negative about something (or someone).

    A trivial example is sometimes after watching a movie, I’m not sure if I liked it or didn’t (and there are reasons for either conclusion), but the next day I will know the answer, no doubt based on what I opted to remember about it.

  • http://twitter.com/cupojoegirl Eileen Knowles

    I am a big believer in remembering in order to learn and to grow.  There are so many lessons we can learn from our past.  Those lessons can be a catalyst for change today.   Love this, “Perspective can change the meaning and relative significance of the past.”

    • rabbimoffic

      Thanks Eileen!

  • http://www.kellycombs.com/ Kelly Combs

    Thank you for this post Rabbi Moffic.  It reinforces the power of positive thinking, and remembering. My childhood was filled with the struggles of having an alcoholic, mentally-ill mother. I can choose to let the sadness of those memories ruin me, or choose to remember that it molded me into the strong, imperfect but loving, person I am today AND gave me a passion for godly mothering in my own children so that history would not repeat itself.

    • Always-a-student

      Good for you! In the past few years, I have dealt with, shall we say, some psychic scars caused by being raised by a single parent who was mentally unstable. Memories of events long past would come to me at odd moments, such as in the middle of a meeting when I truly needed to concentrate on the project at hand. I had put these memories aside while I grew up and now it seemed they were a-comin’ after me! At one point, I realized that I could not change events that had already happened, but I could change how I viewed and used them. I now see the last few years as a time of learning and development gifted to me by our Father, who likes to teach all his kids a good lesson!

    • rabbimoffic

      What a powerful and beautiful response! Rather than replicate the past, you’ve used it to create a totally different future. 

  • http://www.MicheleCushatt.com/ Michele Cushatt

    I recently did a presentation to a writers group called “Mining Your Life for Story.” During the session, I walked them through a process of digging up (and then crafting) the buried wealth of stories in their lives. It was amazing to watch their faces light up as they remembered people and stories they’d forgotten. Often we hang on to key painful memories to the exclusion of so many beautiful ones.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      I love this kind of exercise. Patsy Clairmont does something similar.

      • http://www.MicheleCushatt.com/ Michele Cushatt

        I knew I liked her!

    • rabbimoffic

      Writing our story gives us the gift of hindsight. We can make sense of what at the time didn’t seem to make sense. Steve Jobs talked about that in his magnificent Stanford graduation speech. 

  • Ridenour5

    I believe the newer generations will have a stronger sense of memory due the photos and videos that have captured thier lives.  I am 42 and some memories are stories I have been told over and over, but its the ones that have a photo attached that are more engrained into my memory

    • rabbimoffic

      interesting angle! I wonder how it will turn out. I’m afraid of having so many photos (with iphones, at least 5 a day of the kids) that I might not be able to develop a coherent sense of the past. It might be too many images! 

  • Joseph Michael

    So true,  memories play such an important part of who we are. I love the part where you talk about sitting down with your children and having them recall what they are thankful for. As a father, I too have tried to encourage my daughter to keep a positive perspective and thankful attitude. Her mother and I have also tried to create as many positive memories along the way too! I actually just published a post about 100 Life Lessons to Fathers of Daughters http://wp.me/p2FlnX-9y. It is an emotional reminder to parents that children grow up fast and how important making these memories really are.  

  • http://ClayWrites.com/ Clay Morgan

    Great post Rabbi Moffic. You write about memory in a much more eloquent way than I can speak when trying to convey the meaning of memory in defining history to my students. All recorded history is memory, and that’s never a consistent thing, even when we’re be honest. I love that Twain quote too.

    • rabbimoffic

      Thanks Clay!

  • anita

    I really like the gratitude journal idea.  I noticed yesterday that a lot of good things had happened where I work but the day ended with a negative event.  That was what I carried home with me.

    I think a three stage journal might be helpful for me because I am responsible for trouble-shooting:

    1. Difficulties perceived during the day.
    2. Positive events and accomplishments.
    3. Problem solving and suggested changes for  ‘1’.

    I might add that while I am sold on the need for positive attitudes, I was involved in a Christian organization for over 30 yr. that allowed no discussion of negatives and have a bit of a knee-jerk reaction to focusing unrealistically on positives.  So it is important for me at this stage of ministry to be able to say, “This is what’s good and this is what needs work.” and to be able to have honest and healthy discourse regarding both.

    • rabbimoffic

      Nice approach. I find that all people do experience negatives. That’s life, and it doesn’t take great effort to remember them. The real challenge is reframing them and gaining strength from them. 

  • Rose Gardener

    This is a truth that ‘happy people’ learn -it’s why they are happy; no matter what life brings they remember the positive more readily than the negative.  
    Those who survive a major trauma recover most successfully if they are taught to positively re-frame what happened. Doing so allows you to accept it, without feeling  broken by it. Tell yourself the experience made you strong and your memory focuses on the parts where you felt strongest.  Over time, the scene in your mind changes- you remember yourself standing  taller, looking your aggressor in the eye, and you regain your self-respect. Selectively enhancing your feelings about the memory does not change what happened, but you can alter the outcome dramatically. All with the power of your mind. 
    A favourite quote of mine, ‘Remember nights by stars not shadows, recall those days of smiles not tears…’ 

    • rabbimoffic

      What a beautiful quote. I see reframing as another word for remembering. 

  • http://twitter.com/jryan48 Jim Ryan

    I’ve been graced with the ability of never being able to hold grudges our regrets. (Probably  less forgiveness and more forgetfulness, ha ha). It makes it easy to look back and learn from even worse experiences and helps me practive meta to those who treated me poorly.

    Thanks for reminding me of this strength.

    • rabbimoffic

      What a great gift! Whatever works–forgetfulness or forgiveness!

  • http://www.tnealtarver.wordpress.com TNeal

    As I go through a time of tough reflection, I find remembering past struggles overcome a powerful aid in passing through “the valley of the shadow of death.” Thanks for offering additional tools to strengthen the positive power of memory.

    • rabbimoffic

      Thanks. We remember for the present and the future. 

  • kleighevensen

    Rabbi Moffic, what an insightful, wise post. This was so timely for me, personally, as I am amidst a major life transition. During this time of preparation, I have been immersed in Joshua 3, when he encourages the Israelites to carry stones across the Jordan river. The people are called to remember their history, their rich past, through the visual reminder of the stones; I was greatly impacted by this and decided to call up some “stones” of my own. To take our memories with us, both good and hard, is a positive choice. They keep us humbled to the mighty hand of God upon our lives. We are utterly dependent, and not always strong–but we always cross the Jordan!  Thanks again.

    • rabbimoffic

      Thanks! Memory can enrich us deeply, and knowing people have crossed the Jordan before gives us the strength to do so as well. May you go from strength to strength on your journey! 

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  • DaveBratcher

    I am reminded of a sermon preached by Dr. Bob Long at St. Lukes UMC in Oklahoma City.  He challenged the congregation to do things to build up our memory banks.  He reminded us of how we act when things don’t seem to be going our way…we think back on the good memories we have created throughout the course of our life.  Great post by the Rabbi!

    • rabbimoffic

      Thanks! 

  • michael edwin rogers

    Rabbi, Kelly Combs and Michael H.
    Rabbi, your words inspired us all today. Thank you.Kelly, Thanks for sharing, our mothers had similar paths. Bittersweet as you stated beautifully.Michael, Thanks for sharing your platform. Our ships would have never drawn near otherwise.Imprints not wounds. Our memories should always touch us, but never hurt us.

    “You cannot change the past, but you can change how it touches you” -michael edwin rogers(inspired by Rabbi Moffic’s closing paragraph)

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      Thanks for dropping by, Michael.

      • rabbimoffic

        Thanks for the kind words! 

  • http://www.judithrobl.com/ Judith Robl

    Thank you for posting this. It isn’t as important what happens to us as what we tell ourselves about what happens to us.

    • rabbimoffic

      Absolutely. Events in themselves have no meaning until we process them and tell ourselves what they mean. 

  • http://Thefieldgeneral.com/ Chris Coussens

    In some ways the worst experiences are the best. I’ve had great stories about how the plane caught on fire and when I said or done something stupid. Every story has either a moral or a laugh, or ,if I am lucky, both.

    It’s when things are too quiet, that I worry.

    • rabbimoffic

      interesting perspective! 

  • http://twitter.com/BudgetMindedOrg BudgetMindedOrganics

    A very nice article.  I like the part where you had your daughters think of three things they are grateful for each night before going to bed.  That’s a good idea for journal entries.  No matter how tough the day is, if you close it with three things you are grateful for, the perspective shifts.  Thanks for sharing.

    • rabbimoffic

      Thank you! 

  • http://twitter.com/GregMarcus2 Greg Marcus

    I have never been a journal writer until a few months ago.  I have been spending a week or two writing each night about different traits, like humility, patience, order, and now gratitude.  It has been a really amazing experience, and helps me recognize things about myself and my day that would have gone unnoticed previously.  Gratitude has been particularly difficult, because just when I started studying it, some very difficult things came up in my life, and gratitude was the last thing on my mind.  Nevertheless, I continued with the exercise and it really helped me get through a tough time.  

    Thank you Rabbi Moffic for an interesting post.  

    • rabbimoffic

      Thanks. Sometimes it takes effort, but we can usually find something to be grateful for. 

  • LindaS

    I love the statement ‘We can’t change what happened. but we can change what it means.’  That is such a huge factor in our outlook on life.  Thank-you

  • Daan Van Wyk

    Thank you so much for this post, and thanks to Michael Hyatt for sharing this with me. 

    I have transgressed in a terrible way two years ago, hurting my family, people I love and actually the whole community. 
    Night after night I have been recounting this event, trying to get to terms with my deed and the effect it had on others. 
    And the funny thing is, every time I managed to forget and go on, I am reminded with a feeling of guilt: How can you try to be a mr nice guy again after that which you have done? 

    And yet, when i am dead honest with myself, it was also a good time in my life. 
    The mess I caused actually brought my struggle out in the open, and I could get help. And the support I got from friends whom I didn’t know I had, was incredible. I experienced a wonderful, forgiving side of my wife whom I never knew existed. We experienced God’s Love and provision in ways we have not done before.  And so I can go on and on. 

    You helped me realize that there are two storylines in this course of events, and that I have the choice as to which I will give attention. The one will give energy and life to go forward with, the other will steal the boldness and courage I need to get back onto my feet. 

    Your advice of a diary of thanksgiving is something I plan to do every day. 

    Thanks!

    • rabbimoffic

      Thanks, and best of luck in your ongoing journey. 

  • Rachel

    I love the idea of a gratitude journal- it does force you to focus on the positive moments/people/interactions from the day (an especially good way for ALL of us to end our days. I also like the idea of reframing our experiences (however negative) in a positive way even if that is a lesson we learned or something we will avoid in the future. Being mindful, being present, and remembering that every day is a gift.

    • http://TillerFamily.org/ John Tiller

      All great stuff, Rachel!

    • rabbimoffic

      That’s a nice affirmation: “Being mindful, Being present, and remember that every day is a gift.” 

  • Vincent Pappas

    I really enjoyed this. Remembering the negative and dwelling on it seems to be something many do (including myself), so thanks for the hopeful post! I think we can all learn a thing or two from you and Mark Twain.

    • rabbimoffic

      Thanks. It’s sometimes hard not to dwell on the negative, but time and affirmations can help us along the way. 

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  • rabbimoffic

    Thank You! 

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  • http://www.davidsollars.com/ David Sollars

    Michael, so true. I’ve often heard that world history is often written by the victors. My grandfather stated proudly that it was his right as time went on ” to make the snow he tred deeper and the fish he caught bigger!”

    I guess memory can fad, yet the stories of our life adventures continue to evolve.

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  • http://twitter.com/trynrose Tryn Rose

    Thank you Michael and Rabbi Evan Moffic. I have written a book for caregivers of those with Alzheimer’s and related dementias, and I could have written about the tragic and lonely things, but I wrote about how to bring life back to people, both caregivers and those with dementia alike. This post reminds us that we all need this philosophy to be well. caregiverheart.com

  • Clifton

    So true – we become what we remember and what we think about in our minds eye