It’s important to take a few moments, as we remember those who have gone before us, to reflect, first of all, on the role that memory has to play in our lives (particularly at midlife), and then, on the role that memory has to play in determining our singular and collective future. Nearly every living organism from the single-celled upward to the most complex lving creature has the capacity to learn. Experience seems to be endemic to what it means to be a sensate being. In higher organisms, parents use this capacity to learn in order to train their offspring to behave in certain ways: to avoid seductively dangerous situations and to modify their behavior in ways that actually promote their well-being as individuals and as a species.
What’s not alto gether clear is whether or not any species apart from our own can remember the events that produced the experiences that led to the learning. One of the features of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that makes it so difficult to treat is that the experience has led to a physical rewiring of the brain, creating neural pathways from a certain form of perception directly to the primitive (limbic) brain that floods us with adrenaline and kicks off a ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response without ever passing through the conscious thought centers of the cerebral cortex. In other words, learned responses are not necessarily tied to the memory of the events that created them. That’s one reason why people like us at midlife run into trouble: we increasingly recognize that our responses to environmental changes have become maladaptive. They no longer work for us. They no longer bring about results that foster our quality of life. Too often we say or do things just because that’s what we’ve always done, that’s what we’ve been trained to do, or that’s the only response we have whether or not it makes any sense in the current situation.
Psychology has attempted different approaches to this problem of our inappropriate behavior. Analysis sought to reconnect behavior effect with historic cause by delving deeply into memories: not only memories of events, but memories of the feelings that those events elicited. The process of unlearning maladaptive behavior was linked to flushing out old feelings from their hiding places in the subconscious or unconscious mind (and even from the depths of muscle or cellular memory) so that the behavior could be unlearned and replaced with consciously chosen alternatives.
On the other extreme, behaviorism concentrated on breaking the limbic link between an external stimulus and the behavioral response. It attempted to focus only on the mechanics of learned behaviors, attempting to re-train the mind and replace one set of non-functional learned responses with a new set designed to provide more positive results. In the movie, Sordid Lives, Sissy was practicing some of this crude Skinnerian aversion therapy on herself by violently snapping a rubber band around her wrist every time she felt the urge to smoke.
In the world of midlife, merely attempting to replace old behaviors with new ones usually has about as much success as did Sissy’s ill-fated wrist snapping. In order to build a life of our own choosing, we first have to free ourselves from the ‘old tapes’: the lessons that we learned at our mother’s and father’s knee. One of the remarkable benefits that I personally have found from following the program of A Course in Miracles is that it begins by helping the student to unlearn a lot of old stuff. We humans, possibly alone among sensate beings, are able to make the connection between learned behavior and memories. We can choose to replace not only the behaviors but also the memories themselves that underlie those behaviors.
Do we have to erase or deny old memories that have resulted in midlife problems? On the contrary! The memories are powerless over us. The psychoanalysts were right in trying to get to the emotional content of those memories. The emotions that we’ve stored away there – especially the emotion of fear – can effectively paralyze us in our efforts to move forward. In many cases (outside of real PTSD), it’s ourinterpretation of the meaning of a memory that keeps the old feelings alive. We don’t actually have to erase old memories, nor do only have to learn to live with them while practicing other behaviors. Instead, we have the capacity for changing our mind about the meaning of those memories. In fact, they never mean what we think they meant! Find a different, more realistically neutral interpretation for what we remember, and the negative emotions stored there are apt to dissipate (for a mentally and emotionally healthy person). Once the emotions have been released, we are free to move forward without the defensive behaviors that no longer serve us well.
It’s Memorial Day in the U.S. It’s a time to remember those who have gone before us, particularly those who risked everything to serve a noble cause. We remember them, not only because they serve as monuments to worthy ideals like courage, integrity, honor and sacrifice, but also because they made a difference. Their decision served to steer our world (admittedly on a pretty wobbly course) in that same direction. I suggest to you that you and I can use the memories that we possess to hone our own core values: to reinterpret painful memories and to bolster our sense of pride in achievement in our memories of success. Core values do not speak to your present, rather they speak to your future. The values you live today determine the choices that you make today that will create your tomorrow. Collectively, we, as conscious beings with memory, imagination and free will, serve as the universe’s consciousness as well as its conscious. Our decisions determine not only our fate as individuals, but also as a species, and even of the universe that our choices guide.