I rifle through a drawer, pull out an old journal, and skim. I do this from time to time, and my motivations are varied.
I’m looking for a record of my moments, my reasoning, and the experience of my outcomes.
But when I find what I’m searching for, memory and experience may clash, or memory may have altered my interpretation of the experience. Only in revisiting tangible proofs of what took place – photographs, a video clip, or in this case – my words in a journal – can I readjust my appreciation of an event and its aftermath.
I came across an article in Psychology Today that touches on this phenomenon in the context of consumer behavior. Yet it sheds light on the nature of human experience itself, which I find instructive in considering relationships.
According to psychologist Peter Noel Murray, PhD, in “How Memories of Experience Influence Behavior,”
a consumer could have a great experience with a product or service, but only have bad memories when thinking about it later… Let’s say you are on vacation and have dinner at the best restaurant recommended to you… The experience is fantastic. However, when clearing the table the waiter spills coffee into your lap. Odds are that the coffee spill will degrade your memory of the food and wine, no matter how exceptional you otherwise would have remembered them.
Dr. Murray goes on to emphasize that the memory of your experience will overshadow the experience itself, and if the memory is bad enough, it may wipe out the experience altogether.
Spillage on Marital Memories?
While I consider this useful information in business, I find it equally enlightening when it comes to relationships.
If you consider marriage and divorce, can three years of misery wipe out ten good years that came before – right down to the specifics of dinners out, vacations enjoyed, and intimate moments? Can improved interaction in the years that follow lessen the effect, by allowing some of the good experiences to be recalled?
Dr. Murray references behavioral economist and psychologist Daniel Kahneman, whose research reflects human tendencies to favor the Remembering Self over the Experiencing Self which, I might add, puts into question the viability of our contemporary preoccupation with “living in the moment.”
The Experiencing Self, the Remembering Self
The article continues:
The Experiencing Self lives in the present, processing current inputs and information from the physical and social environment. Life is a continuous series of moments of experience. Once these moments are passed, however, most are lost forever… the psychological presence of an experience lasts about three seconds.
Shall I repeat that? The psychological presence of an experience lasts about three seconds. Is this part of why our storytellers have always been so important to us? Is this what drives some of us to document our lives – so they feel more solid?
Dr. Murray goes on to interpret Dr. Kahneman:
These experiences should make up the story of our lives. But they don’t… The story of our lives is written by The Remembering Self.
Memory and Self-Image
I have specific memories of global events, particularly in the late 60s and early 70s. Does that mean my awareness of the world was growing, or that they touched my life in some more personal way?
I have recollections of my childhood that are fairly disagreeable, and equally, blank spaces for extended periods in which there is, well… nothing. Does that mean I’ve erased entire chapters of my life that are unpleasant?
I have much stronger recollections of my marriage, of course. And I was always struck by how easily my ex-husband could refashion so many years to suit his image of himself.
Then again, I could say the same of me.
While I don’t paint myself as blameless in the demise of our marriage – I wasn’t – we all righteously recreate our self-image, diminishing our moral lapses and shabbier behaviors, in order to live with ourselves. And yes, some people seem to do so far more often and more extensively than others.
Writing our Lives, Living our Lives
There are times my children were annoyed at the frequency of my snapping pictures as they played, and in particular, as they played with their dad. While my husband traveled a great deal, when he was home I wanted to capture every moment I could, and bask in my sense of good fortune at having a family, even if it wasn’t what I imagined it would be.
I was in fact documenting for the purposes of convincing myself that everything was fine – creating tangible proofs that there were people in my life and the life was good. That so many photographs exist of my children with their father could lead some to believe he was here and involved more than he actually was. The photographic documentation distorts the reality, or rather, the appearance of reality.
This is also an example of what occurs when you write your life as you’re living it, which has been my habit for 30-some years, no doubt what writers tend to do even when there is no pen or paper in hand.
These decades of journals are surprisingly utilitarian: they serve to trigger more accurate memories, more faithfully documenting events as they were unfolding; they furnish fuller context – to the extent that I fairly described it, which allows me to see a more balanced picture. Generally, these accounts took place before memory could distort, degrade or dismiss the texture of experience.
Making Sense of Contradictions
Contradictions are part of life and in many cases, enrich it.
So can we accept that in the wake of memory-influenced experience, reality may become distorted? Our experience of experience may not be wholly “accurate” and so-called facts that contradict memory may skew our perceptions? Perhaps memory is the superior watchdog, when you know the full story.
Experience and memory are powerful companions. The body will lodge the emotion of our experiences, and we need to pay attention. Beyond that, in the light of time’s reshaping of experience, we should assess each situation – personal or otherwise – with as broad, as keen, and as forgiving a view as possible.
And if that sounds contradictory, it is – and it isn’t. Didn’t we just clarify that there are many sides to an experience, and always variations to our movable truths?