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November 1994, Volume 2 Nr 3, Issue 15

Memory

  • A memory is not a fact; neither is it a lie.
  • Memory is a type of fiction.
  • It is difficult to distinguish memories from memories of memories.
  • Every memory is a collective memory.

We call this a newsletter. In it, we try to bring you something new. There is much that is stagnant in the "personal growth" community. So here are some ideaseeds to plant around your head, to grow doubt and curiosity. Doubt and curiosity spur us to new discoveries. We hope to open doors to questions you hadn't thought to ask.

Recovering

There is a movement in popular psychology in which people improve their lives by recovering: from addictions, from tendency to mischoose romantic partners, from codependence, etc. The Recovery Movement has admirable goals and both skillful and unskillful means.

One of these means is exploring one's personal history for clues to one's present problems. Would that we would explore our childhood just as fervently to find the sources of our greatest joys; but learning from joy, while an excellent path, is usually misunderstood as denial and pollyannaism.

So lousy memories are a cornerstone of recovery therapy. Through support group meetings, journals, dialogue and reflection, people remember the incidents and patterns of their so-called formative years (I trust that we are always in the formative years). By seeing past events and emotions from the perspective of adulthood, we hope to fathom our present ways of acting. Much of value, means of ethical living and even deep wisdom may be inspired by this memory work.

I caution you to keep open your mind and heart. Have awareness that you are still becoming you. Developmental psychology is a wonderful system. May I call it a good myth? It reveals truth. But, it is not the only path.

Personal History

History is not destiny. This is a radical, even heretical idea. History is not destiny. How dare I say that? Do I not believe that who I am - my patterns of relationships, even my career - are determined by the patterns carved deep in my psyche during early childhood? Just look at the evidence!

Well, yes, within the belief system ascendant in western psychology, I can see, and clearly, that my alcoholic father was unavailable to me emotionally and later, a social embarrassment. Therefore, I dated several emotionally unavailable, addicted men, and even considered marrying one. Probably all those were an unconscious attempt to redeem my father. And, being a middle child, I didn't get much attention, thus learned to care about other's feelings to be noticed at all. Friends were always grateful that I was "such a good listener." Toss in that alcoholic father and the Catholic Church and it's a classic codependence greenhouse. So now I've explained myself - to me, and to a support group of other Recoverings.

Altruism, Destiny

But maybe I'm barking up the wrong tree. This doglike behavior should come as no surprise. Dogs and people are social beings, gregarious and playful and eager to please. The rest of the hound dogs are at this tree barking at whatever we chased up there. The chase was so much fun, and with friends, that I forgot to ask if it was worth catching that raccoon.

Maybe I'm barking up the wrong tree. Maybe what I am calling co-dependency is human altruism. Maybe I became a nurse because I was drawn to the art and science; and to develop compassion, not pity, not codependency. Maybe I write because I enjoy it. I sing because it is my destiny. People don't give destiny, in that sense, much credit these days. La Destina.

Dickens and Rummy

You know, my childhood was good. Am I in denial saying that? No. I have nurtured many wonderful memories. Here's an example. I did get attention. With five children, my mother managed to read me to sleep every night for well over a year. This was when I was eleven and twelve years old. Not a toddler, not a kindergartner. A 6th grader! I had had a medical emergency in the middle of the night near my eleventh birthday. I was afraid to fall asleep for fear it would happen again.

I had outgrown monsters in the closet and snakes under the bed only to have an actual scary thing (a seizure). It was especially scary because I lost my sense of my mind and my body. I lost my ground of who I was. So, Mom read me to sleep. Sometimes, she chose books that were too good. I would never fall asleep because I was enthralled. Or, I fell asleep and she read 60 more pages because she was enthralled. Other times, she chose books calculated to be so dull that I would easily drift off. This led to her falling asleep while reading aloud from David Copperfield.

Years later, until about five years ago, I sometimes would wake up Jozef in the wee hours of the morning. I'd come wide awake, a little shaky or spacey. Typical anxiety attack, sometimes with tingling in my fingers or toes. It felt too much like "just before my seizure." When I told myself that, I turned my anxiety into a fear. My remedy was that we converse. Not about anything of depth either. A chat, to get my mind off it. Would you stay awake for a boring chat with your loved one at 3 a.m.? Later, that chat turned into playing a hand of rummy. I kept a deck under my pillow or beside the bed. One Christmas, Jozef found a deck of cards with large numbers - the large print version - in his Christmas stocking, easier for groggy eyes.

Love and patience, compassion and indulgence, were the great gifts my sleepy husband gave me. Strict Recoverniks would scorn this as enabling me, not acting as an adult, fostering my dependence on him...dysfunctional. Many couples have such stories. They are unique to that pair. They are quietly romantic.

In this issue on memories, it is appropriate to tell tales. Theory is fine but, it is in the details, the tales, that we live. Knowing the theory of developmental psychology may give one knowledge, and an inkling of knowing. But, wisdom comes from the stories. We reflect on our past to discover the series of vignettes that we identify ourselves with. Our psychological stability is thought to be related to our internalized boundaries and self-identity. Self stories protect us from fluidity. They do not however prove our solid state.

Memory as Fiction

Memory is a type of fiction. This is a radical notion to many people, especially those of us who believe that memory must be dependable fact, without which we lose both meaning and identity. When I say that memory is a type of fiction, I do not mean it is not true. But, truth and fact are not interchangeable terms. Emotions, desires, articles of faith are all true, but are they facts? Measurable, discrete bits of material or information are called facts. The slippery intangibles that we cannot lift off a tabletop are the things that can lift us: love, honor, and passion among them.

Since we live in a world of concrete objects and since we live with other people, we tell stories, narratives which tie mental contents to tangible things in the environment. Opposable thumbs and articulate tongues have shaped our civilization.

Marvelous literature is an experience of truth masquerading which we can nearly all relate to. Though Shakespeare often hung his tapestry on a bony framework of "historic fact", his work is fiction. Its enduring value is in its truths. That truth appears as poetry, psychological insights, emotion, depth. While it can be argued that Shakespeare permanently defamed the memory of Richard III, the actual defamation had occurred earlier, by Tudor historians who put forth the legend of the nephews in the tower and other elements specifically to ruin the memory of a popular king. Common practice. Consider the lability of Richard Nixon's reputation, or O.J. Simpson's. Many facts, both flattering and degrading, are attached to each of these. Whether one agrees with the Zeitgeist that O.J. Simpson is a fallen idol and Nixon a risen phoenix depends on one's own beliefs, values, emotions.

Shakespeare didn't give the facts on Richard III, but history was not his intent. What he has given us is a spectacular villain, a complex monster, a dragon. Richard III, deformed dragon or defamed duke? Each character has value. The noble leader was perhaps true of the man's psyche. The hunchbacked bogey is true of places in our collective psyche.

The shadow must be honored and given safe ritualistic outlet. Good shadow rituals are often dramatic but controlled, conscious evocation of essential mystery. Does that sound contradictory? It's not. It's paradox.

We may, as individuals and as a society, project our internal dragons, what Jung called our shadow, onto characters like Richard III. Reading, seeing and performing Shakespeare are ways to safely examine and acknowledge that part of our human minds. Some great shadow rituals are found in grand opera, the Catholic Mass, and the movie house.

Camcorders or Ghost Writers?

Our judicial system often depends on the notion that memory is a cameralike function, recording events objectively. Numerous studies have however shown the malleability of such eyewitness testimony. Eighty percent of subjects can be induced to change details of a videotaped traffic accident simply by such questions as, "Did you see the stop sign? Where was the blue car?", where in fact there was a yield sign and a green car. These are the small details upon which a verdict may occasionally rest. But the photographic theory of memory is fiercely believed. It does hold up well often. Shared memories of a movie, or a romance, are part of how we identify ourselves to ourselves.

Current theories regard memory as a continual reconstruction. We make sense of the past more than we record it. Consider the tales of aboriginal people not even seeing those things for which they had no frame of reference. Or the colonial historians who "recorded" those tales putting their own culturally-biased spin on the behavior of the people they'd invaded/discovered/saved. See how subjective this is?

Memories of Memories

Can anyone distinguish memories from memories of memories? What childhood memories are actually a construction to fit the story we've been told so many times? When is reminiscence a translation, a reconstruction of an earlier memory, told to our present self in its present language?

Jozef tells of two memories of his very early life. Before he was three, he was lost in the woods near the civilian barracks he and his parents shared with other Polish war refugees in suburban England. When they immigrated to the United States, another child broke his nose with her metal toy shovel. Jozef retells these memories, but does he recall them? These are stories he's heard since a very early age. His parent's memories. He's not sure he remembers these events or he created an internal movie of the oft repeated tales.

Some childhood memories may be retained because they were of such significant or unusual events that the child's mind was occupied repeatedly by them. Death of a beloved relative or pet, an airplane ride, or a trip to the circus.

Some memories are of repeated exposure, pattern. More details may be gathered and solidified with each exposure. This may explain the clear memories for which we cannot set a single moment or day. Grandma's house, the cafeteria, the playground. The face of your best friend in high school, your college dorm room. The route you travel to work today.

People usually speak of memory as though it were a single, definite thing, failing to discriminate among the types of memories. Some things we know seem detached from time, such as eight ounces equals a cup. The last paragraph spoke of memories from particular pockets of a lifetime - preschool, adolescence, recent time. Then there are the mental souvenirs, the specific event memories, the car accident, the first kiss.

Blue Mugs

Memory is not like a bunch of filing cabinets in the brain, nor a bank of video cassettes. Memories are not discrete objects preserved until we open the correct drawer. A better analogy may be a database where pieces of information - sensory, emotional, intellectual - are able to interact. Beliefs and expectations color our daily perceptions. If our beliefs change, then even our past memories may change. Memory formation is not an objective process and memory retrieval is even less so.

The sense of objectivity is itself subjective. Consider the difference between seeing a blue mug and imagining one. The imagined mug can easily be changed to yellow. But with a blue mug you are seeing at this moment just try to convince yourself it is yellow. Can you convince yourself? No? This is the sense of objectivity.

When a memory is more static than what it represents, the sense of objectivity works within. One's attitude toward things we love or despise are often more rigid and unchangeable than those things themselves.

And, I haven't even mentioned that seeing is mostly a memory function of recognizing. That's how we know that the blue shape is a mug.

Paradigm and Myth

Readers of science fiction are aware of the notion of very different belief systems. Different paradigms. So are students of comparative religions, and cultural anthropology. Most of us are aware that a shift in one person's perception can be miraculous, and a tiny shift in a culture can change it dramatically. Consider these paradigms:

  • the earth is flat.
  • women are only vessels and contribute no substance to the babies they gestate.
  • women can create babies from their bodies and men have nothing to do with the process.
  • the sun goes around the earth.

All of these statements were conventional wisdom, considered factual, in various cultures and times - generally unchallenged paradigms. In a generous mood, today we call them "myths."

Consider some of the myths that are the bases of various different psychologies. Developmental psychology says history is causality. We are what we are because of our past, especially early childhood. Other psychologies may attribute a person's anxieties, neuroses or aberrance (as described by social standards) to poor nutrition, influence of demons, spells cast by another person. Perhaps it's the revenge of a god whom one has insulted, or not paid proper tribute to, or evicted by destroying its home which is a tree or a spring. What taboo has the person broken? What deeds, what karma from previous lives? How does Satan fit in? What of astrological influence? These are not the quaint customs of unenlightened cultures. These are serious and often very effective paradigms which guide lives today.

Notice that many of these systems place causality in either the distant past: previous lives, ancient family tradition, the unimaginably old pathways of stars, a war in heaven before people existed...or in the nearly present: last week, this year, this morning, now. Western psychology is one of the relatively few systems that focuses on childhood, on what happened 30 years ago. Even the father of modern psychology, Sigmund Freud, said "It's how you remember, not what actually happens."

Picasso said "Art is lies like truth." Perhaps not "lies", I think. Art carries truth. Art is truth all dressed up: dressed to be noticed, dressed to party, dressed in mourning. Rarely does such art follow fashion, though fashion may follow art. Art follows truth.

India's philosopher-poet Rabindrinath Tagore wrote "Truth in her dress finds facts too tight; In fiction she moves with ease." Memory is a type of fiction. It reflects truths of emotion and presents as anecdotes we tell ourselves. The difference between memory and literary fiction is that the author is consciously creating in the latter, but memory is a subterranean construction job.

Kim Chernin, in her new memoir, Crossing the Border, indicates that memory is suspect, untrustworthy, that to survive "it wants to make things worse than they were for the sake of a good story." In this and other writings, Chernin has shown, usually with herself as example, that, like theories of quantum universes, there are infinite perspectives, some even mutually antagonistic. Any one of these may be called the "real thing", the "true story", depending on the convolute workings of memory.

Compassion and Skepticism

There is at present a great controversy in psychology about memory. It concerns what are called "repressed traumatic memories" and "false memory syndrome." These are not antagonistic ideas, but the polarized form of the debate may lead one to believe that only one theory can be correct. The tendency to polarize when emotionally charged issues are discussed leads to a less than comprehensive study of those issues.

I will not have room this month to cover the subject, only offer caveats to those readers who are following, or wish to follow, the issue. What we perceive is profoundly determined by belief and expectation. Perception is projection. A psychotherapist necessarily has some structure for therapy, and that structure implies a belief system.

Clients, therapists and those who love both should practice to strengthen two uniquely human gifts: skepticism and compassion. In some personal growth circles, compassion is a nice thing but, skepticism is a negative thing. To some people compassion implies easy love and acceptance while skepticism implies mistrust or destructive criticism. Such notions dishonor both concepts.

Compassion is not sentimental. It requires tremendous courage and the tender heart of a spiritual warrior. It is the practice of a lifetime, and it is not easy. Yet nothing is more worthwhile.

Skepticism is not cynicism. A responsive skepticism is from Missouri via the heart. It says, "Show me, I'm curious and I'm grounded." It pushes us to learn by experience rather than hearsay. Skepticism is very important in owning oneself, in establishing boundaries, and in testing one's theories.

So, when examining the debated issues of memory, and in all your endeavors, practice both skepticism and compassion, an open mind and an open heart.

Be cheerful, sir:
Our revels now are ended:
These our actors,
As I foretold you were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind:
We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

Shakespeare (The Tempest)

 

Meditation

The person within me…came into play only when, by this process of identifying past as the present, he could find himself in the only environment in which he could live, that is to say, entirely outside of time.

Marcel Proust

Changes

We have changed the name of the newsletter. There are numerous reasons for this change. Although the title, A Course for Teachers, served our intention well, it gave many prospective readers the notion that the newsletter is intended strictly or mostly toward the teaching profession. We wish to be more inclusive.

Everything is metaphor. Not only our words, but music, art, religion, even emotions are metaphors. Thus do we translate the essential. We use metaphor to share our experience and ideas with others. Metaphor travels with myth, and gives voice to mystery. Thus, our new name, Metaphoria.

Secondly, with the proliferation of A Course in Miracles, millions of copies in circulation, now in numerous language translations, the Foundation for Inner Peace has altered its policy on quoting from the book. It seems that many "Miracles Study Groups" have interpreted the writings and there is concern that the original meaning of the writings can become altered, or that incorrect interpretations, can be associated with the writings and the Foundation. In an attempt to avoid such misinterpretation we decided to remove our small reliance on quoting this great work.

Thirdly, the fact that A Course in Miracles has positively affected the lives of millions of people is witness to the beauty of its message. There are some, including Dr. Kenneth Wapnick, who had a close association with the original scribe of A Course in Miracles, who believe the book is the words of Jesus. We do not consider the authorship important. We feel that this debate is better reserved for ardent students of A Course in Miracles. We thus chose to move away from A Course in Miracles as a reference link to our newsletter. We prefer to refer to it in the same manner that we refer to other texts, as resources, places of wisdom.

We let our writing speak for itself. We will continue to bring you our thoughts, understanding, frustrations and sometimes tidbits of breakthrough in Metaphoria. We wish to remind you that many of our readers have been receiving our newsletter for almost a year and a half. If you feel so inclined, please send us a contribution for the next year's postage. Thank you.

Parting Thought

Today is like every other day,
we wake up empty and frightened
Don't open the door to the study and begin reading.
Take down the dulcimer.
Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

When you go to a garden,
do you look at thorns or flowers?
Spend more time with roses and jasmine.

Rumi

1994 JeanneE  Hand-Boniakowski

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