Writing on Air

Writing on Air by Jim Paredes

Archive for November 10th, 2007

The power of memory 16

Posted on November 10, 2007 by jimparedes

Sunday, November 11, 2007

All alone in the moonlight
I can smile at the old days,
I was beautiful then
I remember, the time I knew what happiness was
Let the memory live again.

— Andrew Lloyd Webber, Trevor Nunn and T.S. Eliot

Memory is a powerful thing. It has many useful functions. It helps us store, retain, and subsequently retrieve information. It helps us remember things, events, places, thoughts and even feelings and, in doing so, it frames or situates us in our world.

If a stranger we are talking to somehow brings back a pleasant thought, memory or feeling, we will most likely be friendly and accommodating to that person. However, if the person evokes negative memories of any kind, we will most likely dismiss him or her, or at the very least end the engagement as soon as possible.

Memory, so to speak, arranges the furniture of our world for us.

Memories are interesting because they are man-made, fully dependent on how we spin them. For example, the Marcoses and the Aquinos will have two different recollections of EDSA.

In the history of mankind, memories have been put to use for various purposes. Since the time man realized his capacity for memory, he has learned that it can be used selectively — and it can be colored, treasured, honored, defiled, ignored, forgotten, enjoyed or celebrated. Memories can also be used to reinforce theories about our reality and our opinions of people and events, renew friendships, rescue or ruin relationships, instigate fights, evoke nostalgia, discourage or inspire others to act for big causes.

The malleability of memory makes it a powerful force, and we must be aware of this to make full use of it. In fact, just like everything we encounter, we create and recreate memories for our own end.

Decades ago, Jean-Paul Sartre, the eminent French philosopher, probed the topic of memory in an essay. He wrote about missing his wife who was away for quite a long period and noted the manipulation of memory when a person misses someone. Memory is not static — it can be bent, twisted, watered down, intensified and reshaped, depending on our need.

One who misses and longs for a loved one will find his memory of the person colored and biased, with a heavy dose of romanticizing. The absent person, at least in the memory of the one left behind, becomes some kind of a mythical, iconic and perfect being. The reason we deify the missing is because it is easier to elicit within us emotional reactions that we can control and which we can indulge in over and over. And the end result is that it keeps us focused and hooked on the person.

But then, perversion can happen. Sartre points out that the missing person, in the hands of memory used without discernment, loses some of the real qualities of who he really is. He is “refined” to fit a picture, and toned and colored to elicit the reactions we want. The person loses dimensions of himself as scenes from our selective memory play over and over in our minds. The person is trapped in time, a time of our choosing, and is transformed from the irrepressible human that he is into a wondrous though ghostly and ethereal being.

This probably explains why Rizal, for example, has become a sacred mythical symbol for some religious cults.

Sartre compares the process of indulging in this type of idealization of memory as “masturbatory,” where the object of emotion plays out a defined role and delivers what is expected in a static, predictable movie, to the satisfaction of the one who remembers.

The scene in our memory is scripted to play the same way each time. This may work well, until the person suddenly returns and shows up in flesh and blood with all the quirkiness, unpredictability and unevenness a human presence realistically possesses. And the spell is abruptly and unpleasantly broken.

And the very live person’s presence with all his candor and unpredictability can be a very jarring experience. The movie in the mind that played quite well unfolds in a runaway fashion and moves in a space and time that has never really happened before. And that can be initially distressing, until we adjust to the person’s live presence once more.

All this brings up some questions. Of what value is memory if it can be mangled like this? If memory can be altered, how can we trust it?

The very idea that we humans can alter the past is a powerful one. In Time magazine’s coverage of the anniversary of the French Revolution, French historians were quoted as saying that they are still trying to figure out what really happened several hundred years after the fact. What they meant was, they were exploring the meaning of that tumultuous time in history in the present world. They were looking for its relevance to the now.

Every generation looks at history using its own biases and reality and relates to it in its own way.

When we look at our own past, whether as individuals or as a people, it is important to link it to where and who we are now, where we want to go, and how it can serve us.

My mother lost my father at age 40 when he perished in a plane crash in 1957. The thinking then was that when we lose someone we love, to marry again would be a dishonor and irreverence to the memory of the loved one who died. To allow that thinking is to be condemned to a memory, a past that is static and will only become more so as time goes by.

In order to move on, we must learn to distill our memories to their essence by summarizing them into themes that will ultimately serve us. My father’s life had many facets, but it is the facet of love, giving and joy that I choose to remember. That memory is liberating and applicable to my life today.

The past can be reframed. Things that happened before that may seem like tragedies that can be reframed to tell a different story. The past can either haunt us or bless us depending on what we want to read from it. For example, I may have looked at my early years of trying and not succeeding in having my songs recorded as a time of failure then. I can certainly look at them now as the hungry years when I was on the make. In hindsight, they were great years not just of struggling to be recognized but they were character building as well.

The past is not a story written in stone. We can revisit it and draw new conclusions from it at different times in our lives. It’s really up to us. And that’s how memory serves us.

  • November 2007
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