To some degree, we’re all rewriting the past. It’s a perpetual process that eases pain on the one hand, yet is unnerving on the other.
I know that I struggle in search of something absolute; one clear set of facts to support my perceptions, or a single truth of self. Yet I recognize that multiple movable truths offer a more complete and accurate picture.
Blame, forgiveness, and self-image
Yesterday I read an illuminating article in the New York Times, reporting on a study of morality, memory, and time. Specifically, it dealt with youthful indiscretions involving breaking the law, concluding that we all refashion our memories. And frequently, by diminishing our poor moral choices, couching them in excuses, we thereby find a means to live with them.
But that’s not all.
Apparently we tend to righteously recreate our self-image. It seems that whatever allowances we make as time goes by, we make them for ourselves and less so for others. For example, if we engaged in shoplifting as kids, we dismiss it as a phase, though we’re less forgiving of the neighbor’s son plucking products from the supermarket shelf.
Whitewashing our memories
As we recall our misdeeds, we whitewash the circumstances. Morality, or so it seems, is a slippery slope by anyone’s definition.
So does that mean that in hard times or desperate ones, anything goes? Can we slide by on concepts like all’s fair in love and war, or the end justifies the means? Do we genuinely view our own actions with a less critical eye, at least, with the passage of time?
I wonder if some of us do the opposite, turning up the vindictive volume on self-image, while willing to forgive others the same transgressions. Our patterns may involve taking on blame rather than absolving ourselves of it.
So where did we learn that behavior? Is it particularly American? And is it more common to women?
The mind’s role in recreating recollections
According to the New York Times article,
We can’t make up the past, but the brain has difficulty placing events in time, and we’re able to shift elements around…
And thus I examine the parade of my own moral choices, expecting memory to soften their outline as well as their substance. I review the facts of my life as I see them. I consider, too, those whose choices have impacted me, my children, and my friends, revisiting the legacies that are often a woman’s: the aftermath of abuse, of abandonment, of infidelity.
Is getting beyond these events a matter of forgiveness as some like to say, or is that too simplistic? Is it the natural course of memory reshaping the past? If so, why is it easier for some, and less so for others?
Time plays tricks
Apparently this phenomenon isn’t solely about lying, cheating or stealing, nor other moral lapses. The article goes on to state:
Other researchers note that many unpleasant events feel more distant than they actually are, not just morally charged ones.
So what about events that are painful? Loss, disappointment, the wrong path taken?
Why can some of us tuck these in distant history and move on, while others replay these moments over and over? Are there physiological reasons for this, or are they purely psychological?
More selves of interest
The article is fascinating and I certainly recommend it, though I will add that I wish more data were provided. I’d like to know the gender breakdown along with other details like marital status. After all, doesn’t society judge its women more harshly when it comes to parenting or infidelity? Might social strictures mitigate against whitewashing the past when it comes to women?
Also addressed by the article’s experts are possibilities for moral vigilance, comparisons to others that enable us to feel better about our actions, and the notion of future (more righteous) selves.
The future self is linked to our subtle recreation of the past, and our ability to conceive of ourselves in a better light. Making better choices. Establishing more moral lives. If that’s the case, it’s a hopeful sign for humanity, but problematic if we make a habit of diminishing mistakes and assuming redemption “eventually.” Yet it seems we’re determined to imagine a future happy ending, even if we’re doing so through revisionary reality.
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