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Sep 27, 2023

Editable memories

We often think of our memories as personal artifacts, treasures of the mind that belong solely to us. Yet, the emotional hues of these memories are far from permanent; they're like watercolors exposed to rain, susceptible to the elements of time and circumstance. The idea that we own our past, emotionally speaking, is a comforting illusion. Our memories are not fixed landmarks but shifting landscapes, continually reshaped by the winds of subsequent events.

We had a family vacation in Maui, a paradise where the ocean's embrace felt like the world's gentlest lullaby. The next day after we left, the disaster struck, and Maui was engulfed in flames. Those flames seemed to leap back in time, scorching the edges of that once-idyllic memory. Similarly, in 1981, Svetlana and I went on our honeymoon trip to the Ukrainian part of her extended family. A journey through cities and villages that felt like a part of our story, now feels like a voyage through ghosts. Lviv, Kyiv, Rivno – all these and other places we know and love have been damaged by Russian rockets.  The emotional texture of that experience has been irrevocably altered.

If our memories can be so easily rewritten, do we ever truly own them? Perhaps our past is not really ours but is shared with the ever-flowing river of time, which can erode the cliffs of our most cherished memories and deposit sediments of sorrow or bitterness.

Yet, there is a flip side to this emotional malleability. Just as memories can be tarnished, they can also be polished, enhanced by subsequent experiences that cast them in a new light. A strained relationship with a parent might find redemption in the wisdom of later years, adding layers of complexity and even gratitude to earlier memories of conflict.

In this sense, the fluidity of memory is not just a vulnerability; it is also a form of grace. It allows for the possibility of growth, of change, of new interpretations that can enrich our understanding of ourselves and our history. While we may not have complete ownership of our past, we do have a say in how we integrate it into our present and future.

And here lies the paradox: the same mechanism that allows our good memories to be tainted also grants us the ability to forget, to move past trauma, to dissolve our nightmares. The emotional component of memory is a double-edged sword; it can both wound and heal. It's as if our minds have built-in checks and balances, a way to ensure that while we may suffer, we also have the tools to recover, to rewrite our own stories in ways that allow us to continue, to endure.

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