“People tend to think of recollections as fading over time, but memories grow like manuscripts being revised. In remembering, we add and fill in—and the more often you remember something, the more you change it, by committing to memory your own imaginative acts of recall.” Joshua Rothman, New Yorker article
“Every time you remember something, you change its meaning.” Louis Cozzolino
I ruin a lot of peoples lives. At least you’d think I do with how often I hear people say “I thought I was over this.” Or even “I already dealt with that.” Be it a divorce, a break up, an addiction, the after effects of living with an angry father, whatever. Its always some sort of hurt or disappointment of the past. And its usually something they never intended to talk about.
A guy just this morning said to me, “I was doing well until I came in here.” I kinda winced and said, “I didn’t mean to be a wrecking ball to your day” And its true. Rarely am I the one to even bring up the messy topic. I never make people talk. Most of the time we sort of find ourselves there. Okay, yeah, I ask the questions that get things moving. But I don’t kick in doors.
And in these moments I feel so bad. Like a really cumbersome house guest who just knocked over a plant full of dirt or spilled red wine on that oh so pretty new carpet. What they really came in to talk about was nothing even remotely close to this.
But there it is, the messy topic. The one they were over. And there’s no going back when the red wine is seeping into carpet. The mess is made. So now what?
Most people lean back in the couch and sigh really big. And I know that feeling. Its that sense of slipping backwards. That all that change you thought you had was a mirage. Its the fear of being stuck forever. Usually what follows the sigh is, “When will I ever be over this?…I’ll be stuck forever… I’m never going to change.”
I say it too. The other night, as my wife and I sat as the audience to my son’s bath time water and bubbles show, she asked me how I was doing. And she asked in a way that said she really wanted to know and had the time and space to let me share. As you may know, that doesn’t always happen with a busy life and kids. Even in marriage. I took her up on it as I had not been doing all that well.
I told her that I felt like a teenager lately. She asked if something had triggered that old feeling. She was right though I hadn’t thought about it. As it all started to unfold, I recognized something in the last day had taken me back to an event in high school and triggered a ton of old feelings.
When this all clicked, the first thing out of my mouth was, “I thought I was over that.” And then I sighed. And I felt that feeling we all feel. Of being back in it, of regressing, of feeling like I must be stuck. And when will I ever really change. I tried to catch myself from slipping into this pit as I do with my clients at times. But it never works.
The truth is that this is just how change happens. All change is cyclical. It always circles back. You probably really did change last time. But we are always making deeper passes at things, going deeper on the stuff of our lives.
Could you ride a bike the first time you got on it? Or did you ace that chemistry exam in college just on the boring first lecture alone? What have you ever mastered the first time you tried it? Nothing. You tried and tried and tried again.
The same is true of your heart. You’re not going to get all the implications the first time you face something in your life. You can’t. Things take reflection and playing out and revisiting. We’re always making deeper passes at things in our lives. God brings things up again to offer us more healing.
And really, what would it mean to be over your story anyway? You will always have your story. The facts will always be the facts. You don’t “get over” your story magically somehow by shoving it into the past and trying to forget about it. We can’t change the past as they say. And the saying is right. You cannot take away what happened to you.
Before you fall on the floor in a fit of despair, hear me out. Though you can’t change the facts, you can change their meaning. You can deal with and heal from, even grow stronger through the events of your life.
In other words, your divorce doesn’t have to always make you feel like the discarded woman. The fact that your father called you a wimp doesn’t mean you have to keep sabotaging your life when it gets scary. The plot of your story or of certain events can be altered significantly by your participation in facing the facts of your life.
Literally, from a brain science perspective, every time you remember something, you change the meaning of that event. New neural pathways are created. Certain parts of the memory are strengthened. Other details suddenly are seen from a different perspective. And the next time you think about it, the memory will be different. What this means is that you will never really remember your story in the same way twice.
It does matter how you face your story. In other words, if you stuff it back down when it comes to the surface or keep it to yourself, you’ll only strengthen the terribly painful meaning it already holds. If instead you find someone who cares, who loves you, who will help you listen for and reinterpret its impact and meaning, then you’ll change.
Here’s an example: My grandmother passed away when I was in college. It was a deep loss for me and my whole family. When she smiled, life just felt okay. She prayed tirelessly on her knees. And I’ll never forget the bags and bags of popcorn she made us to fuel our summer adventures at her house. We all took it hard. But my grandpa took it the hardest of all.
Several years later, my grandfather took me and my newly wedded bride Amanda out to dinner in celebration. I can still remember him talking so sweetly about my grandmother that night. And being moved to grief so quickly. All of this while his new wife, my new grandmother, sat right next to him and put her arm around him as he grieved. This happened on many, many occasions, whenever the being with him allowed for storytelling.
Some may say he needed to get over her, move on, stop crying all the time about her. It had been years. Years! Why couldn’t he get over her? Now if it was crippling him, taking away his life, I can understand the concern. But it wasn’t.
The truth is he did move on. He got remarried. He lived his life and took vacations and remodeled his house and worked his job into his 80’s. I don’t think his grief was a sign that he wasn’t getting over her. I think its just that again what does it mean to get over a woman you’ve loved and lost?
And I’ll tell you that every time he remembered her, every time I saw him cry, I swear his heart got softer. He became a better man with every tear. And my view of married love grew even bigger in seeing his capacity to love his wife, my grandma.
So take a breath.
Wherever you’re stuck, wherever your heart is sighing in despair, God has more for you. Yep. Right there. Will you accept this? That God wants to heal more of you? Will you accept that he is not taking away the nagging thing because its right where he wants to love you? One of my counselors Lottie Hillard once told me, “Its a mercy that God lets us heal over time. If we had to grieve everything in our lives all at once, it’d probably kill us.” I think she’s right.