Sixty Minutes recently did a story on people with “autobiographical memory”—those who can remember almost every day of their lives, such as what they had for lunch on April 7th, 1982. Each memory is as vivid as if the event occurred yesterday. For people with such an extraordinary memory, “The past is never dead, it is not even past.”
What struck me most was one woman’s comment that this ability motivated her to live every day of her life in such a way that she could live with her memories—memories presumably about the way she treated people and the choices she made. The fact that very little would be forgotten meant that she wanted to minimize regrets and remorse, which would always stay with her.
Is it true that the person with a clear conscience has a poor memory? I don’t think so. Memory seems to have little to do with how a person treats others. With or without a good memory, a person either has or lacks compassion for others. With or without a good memory, a person can benefit from living every day so as to avoid regret and remorse.
Directing our focus
Diane Sawyers asked these gifted people whether it was hard to have relationships with others, as their relatives found it difficult to ever win an argument about facts with them. They didn’t think so. They did stop arguing over facts though. A lesson for everyone might be to stop arguing over facts and get to the underlying reason for the argument.
How about the rest of us, many of whom can’t remember much more than the highlights and the low points of our lives? Is it a blessing to be able to forget?
It depends. As Joyce Appleby put it, “Our sense of worth, of well-being, even our sanity depends upon our remembering. But, alas, our sense of worth, our well-being, our sanity also depend upon our forgetting.”
Rather than clinging to our memories or trying to forget, we can improve life and relationships by directing our focus. By learning from our past experiences, we can concentrate on the positive within ourselves and others. Whether we remember all the detail of our lives or only the drama, it’s up to us to decide what to focus on.
by Alison Poulsen, PhD