Memories and identity 

I’ve been going through the book “Dawn” by Elie Wilson. There’s a scene where the main character, a member of the Jewish resistance terrorist cell who’s been assigned to execute a British soldier prisoner, meets the ghosts of everyone he’s ever known. He asks why they’re there. One of the ghosts respond that because he’s about to become a murder, it will make all of them murderers. That the actions a man takes marks all the people who have had an impact on the man. That he would not be able kill if it weren’t for them. That everything they’d said or done to him had led him to that moment. 

I’m not going to kill anyone, but I’ve been thinking a lot about memories and how they impact you as a person. The idea that who you are is a summation of your memories, the things that have happened to you, and how you’ve allowed those things to impact you. If you have things missing from your memory, either because you’ve forgotten or because you’ve chosen to forget them, then you have edited your identity in some way. 

I remember a moment while I was on my hike, I stepped on a black walnut fruit. I stopped to pick up the fruit and in that moment I remembered one of the houses we lived in when I was a kid. There was a large black walnut tree in the front yard and I spent a full summer collecting the fruit. I somehow believed that I would be able to sell the fruit and make some money. I was maybe seven or eight at the time. 

Then as I was standing there, my memory shifted and I remembered a night when we came home to that house. My dad hit play on the answering machine (remember those?) and there was this message from the landlord. She was asking where her money was, and I remember thinking that her voice was the nastiest and most cruel thing I’d ever heard. Or maybe I’ve overlaid that in my memory. Either way, as we stood there in the living room, even though I didn’t really understand what was going on, I knew that something was wrong. I could tell my parents were worried. I knew that things were uncertain, which is a terrible feeling for a child. 

I think I stood there in the woods for a while. It might have been ten minutes, it might have been a half hour. I felt this wave of time wash over me as the memory rushed out, like opening a linen closet and becoming buried in old sheets. I hadn’t blocked the memory out, per se, but I certainly hadn’t thought about it in years at least. Was I a different person now that it had resurfaced? Had that memory affected who I was even though I didn’t remember it before? I don’t know that woman’s name, based on her age at the time I’d guess she’s no longer alive, but had she become one of those ghosts that will follow me around? 

For a Christmas Eve service at my local church, I volunteered to be interviewed for a video being played at the service. For the video, I had to answer the question “What’s your favorite Christmas memory?” and also had to talk about a present I remembered getting. There were some technical issues with the video and I had to repeat the story several times. In the case of both questions, I found myself dealing with memories I hadn’t really given direct consideration to in quite some time. With each repeated telling, I found myself pulling out more and more details, until I had to be reminded to cut some for time. Even after leaving, I found myself continually walking back through those memories and emotions. 

I wonder sometimes, who I am. One of the earliest memories I have is my mom taking me to radiation treatments when I had cancer, she had to pull over so I could throw up on the side of the road. We stayed with my great aunt in Columbus to make the drive shorter. I’m not a sick little kid anymore, but that kid is a part of me. I remember being picked on in junior high so much that I fantasized about the other kids dying in some kind of spontaneous attack at the school. (this was years before the shootings at Columbine high school) I’m not that angry kid anymore, but I still remember and understand how he felt. 

The truth is we’re all a mixture of those people. More ghosts for our crowd of followers. But who we are is something beyond that. We aren’t just the collection of the memories, but we’re also how we view those memories. Do we remember only our own pain or do we open the lens for the pain of others? At the time of that answering machine message, I only knew my own uncertain fears and angers. The knowledge that things were out of control and I was powerless as a kid to do anything about it. But now looking back, I also see that scene to a certain extent through my parents eyes. The fear of not knowing how to solve the problem. The anger of knowing their kids had heard the message. Wanting to protect them and not knowing how. When I think of being beaten up in junior high, tossed in a locker and left in between classes, I also consider the kids who did it. Were they simply responding out of fear themselves? Or simply raised in a way that they had no notion of this being unacceptable? It’s easier to make the assumption that everyone who’s hurt is were clearly the villains of the story while we’re the heroes,but as we grow older and gain perspective, we adjust these memories in our vision and we open up the possibility of changing who we are as well. We can unpack the boxes in our minds, allowing them to mix and match with each other in new ways. If we allow it, we can refilter and purify those memories that have been a poison to us. Finding those places where we have been hurt and identifying how the injury has spread. We can wander through our mind and find ways that the memories connect and led to pain we may have caused for others. 

This process unfortunately is not simple. I’ve found the best tool for the process is meditation, taking the moments of memory as limited items at first, considering them in my mind as if they happened to someone else, perhaps being relayed to me as a story or viewed as a play. Then I can think through the emotions as separate from the facts of the memory itself. There’s a possibility to remember that the facts of a memory are not really the “truth” of that memory for us. Rather, the actual truth that the memory holds is in our emotional reaction to it. “Such and such happened to me,” we say, but the event is not really what matters. Instead it’s how we felt about the event that create its impact on our identity. Two people may have the same experience, having a father go to prison when they’re a child, for example, but in addition to the variety of variables that may also exist (what their family unit was like before he left, what their mother or other family members said about the father in his absence, etc) the crucial difference in how this event affects the two individuals is how they reacted to it emotionally at the time. You may say this is a simple and obvious observation, but it is nonetheless more significant than we may at first consider, largely because it is so obvious. By reviewing the memory first as removed facts then as pure emotion, we gain an opportunity to individually observe the full effect of the memory. 

I think of when I was 12 or 13 and I bought a cassette of the Beach Boys album “Pet Sounds.” The cassette had a feature that if you tuned your stereo sound to the right, you’d you’d hear only the Instrumental tracks of the album, and if you tuned to the left you’d hear only the vocals. This allowed me a greater appreciation at the time for the full musicality of the album. I could hear the harmonies the group used so masterfully, then the instrumentation that was so revolutionarily different even from their own previous work. 

In much the same way, we gain a deeper appreciation for the memory and how it’s impacted our identity by viewing it in this isolated track, seeing where it lies in the overall plot of our lives, how one event led to another, and then how we absorbed it, took the event to heart. How it resonated within us and in our spirit. 

This process can sometimes be assisted by speaking it aloud to another person. I meet with a spiritual director who I often discuss such things with and find it incredibly helpful. A therapist can also be of tremendous assistance, providing you with guidance as you go through the steps and their trained ear helping you identify the importance of individual items. It’s worthwhile to note here that you must not wait until you are “sick” to see a mental health professional, just as it’s worthwhile to get regular checkups with your primary care doctor long before you actually get an illness. Journaling can also be helpful, especially as you aren’t likely to edit yourself as you would when speaking with another party since you know the journal won’t be shared, but you still have the chance to review the items in a more detached way. 

Hopefully, taking such steps, and at least carrying a more mindful view, can help you to better know and identify, your growth and experience 

(cover image courtesy of Flickr user Automatt) 

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