There was once a kid named Forest who hated me.
He and I went to elementary school together, then middle school. It felt like that for as long as I knew Forest, he couldn't stand me. It was in the way he talked to me, the way he looked at me. The way he was around me.
When I was in 7th grade, I ran for student council Vice President. Only 8th graders could run for president and I wouldn't have won anyway because our school had our own Tracy Flick type young go getter who would have won anyway. I was content with VP. I campaigned hard, and I remember going up to tables at lunch to introduce myself (like people didn't know me) and ask for their vote. I remember going up to a table where Forest was sitting and giving my spiel. I could see him getting agitated and trying to hold it in. He finally lost it.
"I would never vote for you," he said. "YOU are a bad person."
At the time I laughed it off and made a joke, but it really hurt. I had been through so much, and was going through so much. At the time, I was going home every day to an abusive stepfather, not knowing what the night had in store. Would he hit me? Try to make me touch him? Who knew. I already knew that Forest was right. I was a bad person. My stepfather told me that. My mom implied it with her absence. And Forest just saw it.
And it hurt.
Today is the 80th anniversary of Peal Harbor. I have been thinking about memory, and how we remember the things that happen. The big, earth shattering and life shaping events like Pearl Harbor and 9/11. The slower moving and equally impactful things, like global pandemics. And the smaller, more intimate moments that shape all of our lives - good and bad.
How do we remember these things? Why do we remember them the way we do? How do we use these memories to create narratives, and how do the stories we tell about our memories end up shaping those memories?
After Pearl Harbor, a nation rushed to war. Young men and women signed up to serve in droves. The same thing happened (albeit at a MUCH slower rate) after 9/11. I was already in the military, but 9/11 galvanized my service. I wanted to go to war. The sooner the better. I thought every day about the people in those towers. The fear and confusion they felt that day. And I wanted to go and fight for them.
And. My wish was granted. For good or ill.
We as a country have a history of this kind of memory alchemy. We take a real tragedy and use it as a catalyst for more violence. Remember the Alamo. Remember the Maine. Remember Pearl Harbor. Remember the towers. We lose sight of what actually happened, we even lose sight of why. And we still use it. Memory alchemized into propaganda.
The truth is that our memory is - at best - inexact. We think of our memories as being like a video recording of a live event, capturing details that can be freeze framed and enhanced for greater understanding. We should actually see our memories as an impressionist painting - a gauzy, breezy suggestion of reality, one with blurred edges and shadows and faces generic enough to belong to anyone.
Studies on the unreliability of human memory are legion in psychology and neurology. The simple truth is that what we think of as the "ground truth" of what happened is more accurately described as our impression of what happened. And this fundamental lack of understanding can have HUGE impacts in our daily lives.
We frequently conflate memory and narrative. Much like the way we collectively "remember" Pearl Harbor or 9/11, we individually remember not the particulars of what happened to us, but rather the story we want to tell about what happened to us. We start with the story. Then our brain goes looking for the memories that fit.
Think about it. We start with a statement. High school was the worst. College was the best. How do you know? Well because all I can remember are the bad things and struggles that happened in high school. The time I got rejected when I asked a girl to prom. The time kids made fun of me when I fell. And in college I had amazing professors and brilliant friends and had the best conversation at that one party.
But was that all there was? What about the time in high school when the algebra teacher took time after school to explain quadratic equations until you got it? What about that party in college with the amazing conversation? Do you remember throwing up in the Chi Phi bathroom later? Probably not. Those facts don't fit the story we want to tell.
Story almost always trumps facts. Propaganda is almost always more impactful than memory, mainly because it causes us to change our memory to fit the narrative. This doesn’t mean stories are bad. They are, in fact, necessary. But they are sometimes ill constructed.
Our brains are incredible things. And as amazing as they are, they can only hold so much information. There's a limit to how much we can remember. And that amount changes over time. Ask anyone who has reached middle age or later and they will tell you how quickly that amount seems to shrink.
I think that the same is true of our hearts. We hold on to some memories - we only tell some parts of the story - in part because that's what our heart needs. Sometimes our heart wants to remember only the good things about a certain time in our life. Sometimes, it wants to remember the trauma.
Our heart doesn't hold on to trauma because it hates us (although it can feel that way). It holds on to it because it loves us. And remembering trauma is one of the ways our heart keeps us safe. Our heart remembers so we don't make the same mistake. It remembers so we can take the actions we need to take to stay safe.
We do this because it is easier. It is easier for our brain to not have to remember all the things, and to sort which was important and which wasn't. It's easier for our heart because it doesn't have to feel the feelings, to break repeatedly. We get to set down the burden of thinking through it all, feeling it all.
This all makes sense. But here's the thing... as much as we can, we have to tell a story that is the WHOLE story. It can't be all one thing.
Because more than one thing is true at a time. Even when some of those things don’t match the story we WANT to tell. They all belong in the stories we NEED to tell.
Our stories can be really powerful tools. They can help us process trauma. They can help us work through difficulties. We HAVE to tell stories about our lives. We have to have a way to categorize and prioritize all of the things that happen to us.
We just have to tell as much of the story as we can.
The very best story we can tell is that we don't know the whole story. The best thing we can do is stay curious. To challenge our narrative. To ask what else is true. To admit that we don't know what we don't know.
And what we don't know is almost everything.
In the end I was elected Vice President for the student council of Granbury Middle School. I won 70% of the vote. Forest was not one of them.
A couple of years ago, I told my therapist about Forest. She challenged me to think through the story. She asked me to think about what I was missing. And I remembered something.
I remembered that in 3rd grade, I had made fun of Forest. Forest was a heavy set kid. In the 70s he would have been called "husky." I called him Fat Forest at recess. I sang the theme song to the cartoon Fat Albert, only swapped in Forest's name. I got other kids to join in. I was mean. Pointlessly cruel.
The narrative I wanted to tell about my childhood - one of trauma and abuse and pain - was absolutely the truth. All of those things happened. And. That was only part of the story. The part I didn't want to tell (and still don't) was how I often turned that pain outward. How often I directed at people like Forest. At people just trying to be.
Forest was right. I wasn't a good person. Not to him. Not to a lot of people since then. The why doesn't matter. Trauma is no excuse for being an asshole. It just isn't.
I never tried to track Forest down. I did try and track down more of my story. I still try every day to understand more about what I do and why.
And I try to be a good person. Every day. I really try.
I hope that is apology enough.
We are, in the end, the sum total of the stories we tell. The good, the bad, the ugly. The times when we are the hero. The times when we are the villain.
We are just stories.
Which one will you tell?
As ever, thank you for reading. I am so grateful you are here.
Be well, friends.
And keep pounding the rock.
Good to ponder. Another “And.” about those stories and memory: if you’ve shared life with someone for a long time, like a sibling or spouse, you also have to consider your memories and stories with theirs. Sometimes I have to close off our remembering them together because my comforting or healed story isn’t theirs and we aren’t helpful to each other’s way to move on.