Meditation on Memory

Several old journals sit on my bookshelf here, ranging in age from ten years to a few months, several of them worn and stained, some with small mementos, slips of notepaper, receipts, and sketches, all tucked between the pages or inside their covers. Whenever life seems to be taking a rather unexpected turn, I feel compelled to revisit these old, familiar books.  I always wrote with a vague notion that I was conversing with an audience, as if someday, someone would stumble upon this book and read it, and perhaps find my childish descriptions of daily chores and regimens fascinating. And somehow, I find myself doing just that. I read through these old memoirs, and play a sort of hide and seek with my younger self to see what hidden wisdom I can gain from amidst the terribly primitive handwriting. This ten-year-old I’m chatting with is somehow me, and yet somehow not. I don’t look or talk the same, my ideas have evolved and matured, but my past still forms the foundation of who I am now. There exists in every self both continuity and discontinuity, and at various times we may strive for the former or wish for the latter, but both will always be present. Certainly, we want to change as time goes on, to grow wiser and more mature. But the impulse to discontinue, to clear the slate and become a completely new person, does not serve us well. Some part of our selves needs continuity, to have an identity rooted in personal history. We want to feel at home in ourselves, to understand the unique causes of our actions, our affections, and our responses. To do this, we have to hold on to whatever is continuous in us and allow it to form our identity. In order to know who we are and to have that sense of comfort and familiarity in our own persons, we have to actively interact with our past in meaningful ways that are rooted in its essential nature, while still remaining relevant to our temporary conditions.

Essential continuity over time is a difficult thing to find: a person’s appearance, his or her voice, ideas about the world, even the individual cells that compose the body, all change over the course of one’s lifetime. Perhaps the closest thing we have to continuity is memory. Memory is the source of identity: the recollection of lived experiences forms the personality and enables the self to become conscious of its character. Memory forms a continuous stream of of remembered experience that links all of our past selves to the current self. But memory is not stable. It can be manipulated, altered by our environment, by time, and by ourselves, consciously or unconsciously. This inconsistency is something we’ve all most likely noticed when reading old journals: we realize that we have remembered experiences differently, sometimes even entirely inaccurately. As we consciously manipulate our memories, reexperiencing the past, this time with the benefit of hindsight, we play with our self-continuity. We take an event, and we change it in accordance with our understanding of the present. In a sense, we continue to edit our past through the stories we tell with it and about it. 

Our capacity to tell stories is what makes us human. We take our experiences and our very selves and, through the application of our rational faculties, unite them into an overarching personal narrative. We experience objective things subjectively. Through telling stories, we take objective things and draw out their meaning. Our experiences offer us an inexhaustible source of meaning and purpose, but where this meaning is or how we might find it is not always obvious. We do not create meaning, imposing it retroactively on these objective things, but we do have to seek it out of the experiences themselves. Experiences can serve as parables, and we each find in them a message for our own selves each time we revisit them. They have a lasting, dynamic meaning that changes with us, while ideally remaining bound to their truthful reality through our maintenance. The stories that we tell read our experience, uniting what the object from its nature can offer us, and how we respond to that offering. This way of reading experience imitates the way we read written works. The word is like the object, which offers a range of personal meanings to the subject reading it. Different readers will have different associations and connotations for the various words, limited by the actual meaning of the word itself. Put together, these words relate particular information to the reader, and this information is integrated by each reader in a way that is meaningful to him or her. Another example, to draw from the natural world, might be a tree. It is objectively just a collection of atoms arranged in a particular way, but we experience it as something with much more significance. For different people, this same tree might serve as a source of shade, firewood, artistic inspiration, or even as a reference to divine creativity, while remaining all the while mere wood in its objective nature. We do not impose these meanings on the tree, but rather draw from it these more valuable roles – which it has within the potential of its nature – through the stories we tell about it. These stories are indistinguishable from our experiences. Our memories work the same way. A memory is the impression of the original subjective experience, which, when recalled, becomes itself an object to be experienced subjectively. The memory is a part of ourselves that taps into an inexhaustible reality, and our stories about the memory draw from this well to find for us meaning and direction relevant to our current needs and decisions. 

As we interpret our memories, though, we distance ourselves from the original experience, and obscure it with layers of subjective stories. When we experience new events, we also re-experience old memories – through story – that relate to the new events and help us to understand them. In a certain sense, we are actively writing a narrative of the self, an autobiography that weaves past experiences into an explanation of the present. This process is necessary and good, but we can do it poorly. We can tell a bad story. To avoid this, we must take care not to lose ourselves in subjectivity; rather, we ought to bear in mind that there is an ineffable, absolute, and united truth. We may only attempt to approach this truth subjectively, although it is not itself subjective. We each have some limited view of the infinite truth, and we have a responsibility to relate this view through our stories. The bad story loses sight of this truth, venturing instead into fabrication. The self follows it there, and loses itself in a falsely constructed reality.

When we lose sight of an original experience we open ourselves to the possibility of reinvention, of breaking down elements of our personality and attempting to set new ones in their place. The self that we create in this manner, though, can never really amount to anything more than an artificial façade. We will never be fully comfortable in our dishonesty, and this discomfort will be apparent to ourselves and others. This self is not real, because it is not based on our genuine experiences. We do real things, and real things happen to us. We may experience them subjectively, but they have actual consequences at the time of their occurrence. Our identity forms, not only from our memories of experiences, but also on a more subconscious level, from the objective and affective experiences themselves. Our memories and the stories we tell with them compose our self-conscious identity, while our experiences and their definite effects form that vague, mostly subconscious notion of self which our stories attempt to bring to light. When we allow the memory of an experience to fade away, the effects of the experience fall outside the conscious identity, and they leave the narrative of self lacking what might be a valuable piece of the story. To tell a good story, then, we must be honest with ourselves and our experiences. 

The old journals still on our shelves matter because they help us to maintain this honesty. Our inability to remember clearly impels us leave a record of the event outside of ourselves, to take the internal story and externalize it. For the community, this becomes a history; for the individual, it becomes a diary. Both of these forms of narrative preserve something close to the original experience. They are still nested in a subjective story, but without the added layers of re-telling and re-interpretation. They allow us to more confidently tell helpful stories, to retell and reinterpret memories, while anchoring us to the reality of their objects. This safeguards the continuity of the narrative. If we balance the reality of our experiences with the stories we tell, the individual stories fit more seamlessly into a continuous overarching narrative. The honest treatment of memory allows for a genuine identity, one that arises from reality rather than from fabrication. We must tell stories that describe reality, that are about us. We cannot reinvent who we are by the stories we tell about ourselves. It is the union of fate and will in time that makes a story genuine. We tend the garden, but we do not cause it to grow. We are stewards, not despots, even of ourselves. We do not create reality, but rather modify it by way of story. Tell stories with your memories, but make sure they are rooted in the truth of your past.

Caleb Longacre is a junior studying history, art, and German.