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The power of memories that come from the deepest, farthest places within us
In the life of each of us, I said to myself, there is a place remote and islanded, and given to endless regret or secret happiness.
Sarah Orne Jewett
Until we learn the lessons inherent in unpleasant experiences, they will continue to hold power over us, and we will feel compelled to repeat them.
Sometimes we travel back in time to our recent and then distant memories, in a cascading series of recollections that seem to follow one after the other. When we’re receptive and feel temporarily at peace with ourselves and our surroundings, these memories can take us to pleasant places in the far reaches of our pasts but then also disappear as quickly as we have arrived there.
In these realms of memory are contained the persons we have always been, or seen ourselves becoming. We try to visualize, when relaxing or dozing, the pleasant times and good memories we want to hold onto: endless summer days at the beach; cool fast winds before a thunderstorm in summer when we are sitting out on the porch; gentle, soothing words from a loved one in moments of crisis or fear; carefree days of childhood; the good times we spent with our friends.
Our visits to the land of memory also take us to the bad times we have endured, and there we may languish for long moments, trying to fathom the awfulness and meaning of it all. Those memories are often the most vivid, and for a reason, I think. In old age, we can obtain from them glimmers of understanding and self-awareness when we think of the times of trial and peril we have experienced or endured, mostly from the long-ago past. Conversely, the good memories offer truths for our understanding as well. We learn from both realms of memory: the sweet and joyful, sentimental and nostalgic memories, and those that are nightmarishly bad and won’t ever go away.
Why is it that bad memories come to mind so much more readily and easily than the good ones? In thinking about this I have to conclude that, for me anyway, since I can’t run and hide from them, or hope they disappear, I will recall them any time I want because they’re going to pop into my head regardless. Confronting them makes me less inclined to cower and shudder at whatever bad memory I have recalled, and berate myself and spew out worthless and harmful “what ifs.”
How we choose to think about what we remember is crucial. In whatever land of memory we choose to dwell most often lies a key to our future happiness. In the lowest moments, when memories of depression and failure loom up to confront us with their truths, we can let them linger longer than is beneficial and succomb to pain and regret. Or, we can see the failures as almost inescapable byproducts of decisions we have made which brought us pain and suffering. Then we can take that fact, that reality, and see that there is no changing the past, just learning from it.
I try to look at the dark times and see the end of the tunnel where the light has led me, and then turn away from the painful past. Turning away, but not running away. Yes, I may have horribly failed at something that may have turned out to be my dream career, doing something I loved, such as teaching. But I never consciously made the same mistake or terrible decision again because failure is both fateful and excruciating to recall, tormenting, if you will, but redemptive when you learn about yourself and life’s lessons through that same failure.
Memories whether happy and transcendent, or filled with suffering and failure, are all part of what make us human.
Just as if at the end of suffering we are blessed to see the light of hope and endless possibilities for good, so we can also rise out of the pits of failure and hopelessness that circumstances and we, ourselves, create. Ultimately, our memories are what we make of them. Bad memories can be beneficial if we constantly learn from them but don’t dwell on them. That is a fault I still have to overcome. I sometimes find myself dwelling on painful memories when there’s no reason to. But I am happy to report that when I do this in the later years of life after retirement where I am now, and when there’s nothing left to succeed at, even lingering on the bad times doesn’t scare me or bother me anymore. I have reached that stage of life when everything that’s happened to me has merged, or been incorporated into, the final, or newly final version of the person I was fated to be, good and bad, and everything in between included.
A long winter ends with clear blue skies and the warmth and new life of Spring. In that remote place deep within myself, I can choose to find happiness, and let it not be a secret, but something to share each day with others, humbly and gratefully. When I don’t I realize that, I am dwelling within myself and my ego. As easy as that is, self-absorption leads to depression and loneliness. Who wants that?
Peace of mind will lead to peaceful memories, and, finally and at last, the bad memories will lose their power over me, and I will no longer need to learn their lessons.