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Life That Works: Re-constructing Memory

“A healed memory is not a deleted memory. Instead forgiving what we cannot forget creates a new way to remember. We change the memory of our past into a hope for our future.” -Lewis B Smedes

I still get stuck on some memories. It is almost as though my interpretation of some of my childhood is etched into my brain and each time I speak with or about certain old characters in my life, the old story gets triggered: automatic re-set. The narrative doesn’t even fit who I am now and is more useless to the life I am working to cultivate than ever; but still it seems to trail me, close as my shadow.

It was one of my dear friends who has always been a model of positivity who gave me a clue about how to approach these habitual old thinking patterns that present as the truth in the form of memory tonight. She had been struggling with some recent events with her brother, which compromised her own immediate family. I had remembered her sharing the story when it was fresh, but tonight she had talked about how she had spent some time away from her brother; time which she used to re-construct her memory.

By choosing to hold onto the more pleasant parts of her experience, she both built a bridge to re-connecting with her brother in the present and found the forgiveness of the imperfect past event. All memory is a personal construction. Whether we hold onto the positive or negative aspects of a situation doesn’t make it more or less true.

For most of my life, the negative story line was so familiar, so deeply etched into how I thought of myself and my original family that any kind of positive spin felt like a lie. The burden of the truth always seemed more palatable than holding onto a new way of thinking. Until recently, I realized that hanging onto that version of reality actually made me a prison of my own constructs.

Forgiveness is really never about releasing another person from your debt. This is where most of us get stuck when we want to let go of the past. The idea that letting off the other person who harmed you can sometimes feel like adding insult to injury. The deepest freedom that comes from the act of forgiving is that it sets you free from the memory constructs that keep you locked into a story line that may well do nothing for you but hold you in a prison that was never really yours.

Years ago when a friend lost her spouse to a senseless accidental death, she decided within hours that his death would not be the defining moment of his life. The richness of all that he had lived and the love that they had built was the only story she would communicate about. The story of his death receded into the brief tragedy that was indeed only the last moments of who he was. Her bold and courageous decision about how she would construct the memory of his life and his death was and is the truth.

We all have the immense privilege and responsibility to construct and re-construct our memories of our lives and relationships. How we think about and remember is the foundation for everything that comes next.