By Viktoria Vidali
High-school and family reunions, alumni gatherings, birthdays, anniversaries, cultural holidays, or the chance meeting with an old friend—such are life events in which we retell stories and relive experiences we have in common. On these social occasions, it seems second nature to compare what we and others remember about our shared past.
Also on these occasions, we realize how much our memory is like a beloved and well-worn
patchwork quilt, with some squares almost as good as new, others a little threadbare, and still
others full of holes. Although it might be interesting to guess the reason this is so, chances are we’ll never know exactly why a specific moment remains so vivid, while another completely disappears from memory.
Let’s think about what this means.
First, it means that our memory doesn’t reflect a mirror image of our life the way we trust it does. To be sure, we may have omitted, embellished, or forgotten what took place in our past. Second, it means that our personal perspective is subjective and therefore limited. And third, if we base “who we believe ourselves to be” on how we interpret our past history, that concept will forever be in flux. This is because as we gain a deeper knowledge of life, most of us have, of necessity, changed what we believe about the world and ourselves.
A good example of this is when grown children become increasingly appreciative of their parents after they’ve had kids of their own. Essentially, these new parents are now recalling the past with a more nuanced and mature understanding of their own childhood memories.
Chinese philosopher Wu Hsin has written: “Your beliefs shape your experiences, which, in turn, reinforce your beliefs. If this dynamic is not broken, you are forever ensnared.
The cliché, “They’re in their own little world,” echoes this truth, because even though our beliefs may be refashioned by experience over time, they nevertheless remain subjective and unique to us, reshaped by our point of view and belief-experience matrix. We can, however, open the narrow gates of “our own little world” to a wider sphere by holding our beliefs loosely, by seeing situations with different eyes, and by finding greater security and peace not in a past we doggedly cling to, but in that part of ourselves Derek Walcott, in his poem “Love After Love,” so beautifully describes:
The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.
Recognizing that others, like ourselves, suffer from the same out-of-focus vision and forgetfulness, compassion becomes our most powerful and meaningful response, where we can truly live in the safe light of the Golden Rule by doing unto others as we would have them do unto us.
Art credits: 1 and 2, courtesy of Creative Commons; 3, George Tsai, Looking in the Mirror