The Perils of Memory

I was recently on a trip with a friend who wanted to show me his favorite places in his home state, some of which he hadn’t visited for 20-30 years. But when we arrived at these treasured places, they didn’t quite match his memory. One place that he remembered as having several trails had none. A car route he remembered as particularly picturesque proved to be nothing special. A river he remembered crossing easily was now impassable.

I’ve had these experiences myself, especially as I get older, and it makes me not trust my memory. I have to wonder if we selectively remember certain things about a place we visit and forget other attributes, so when we revisit it years later we have to combine our faulty memories with the reality in front of us. Putting together these disparate views can be disorienting.

Or maybe our brain combines different places into one, taking the best of each place and creating someplace that, over time, becomes burnished in our memory as the perfect place. It’s that place we want to return to over and over again, the one we mentally escape to when life gets tough and we’re looking for a refuge.

Of course, we can never find that perfect place because it doesn’t exist the way we remember it. When we arrive at the park or old neighborhood, favorite restaurant or mountain trail, it won’t be the same. We’ll be in a different mood, the weather will be different or it’s a different season; the elk we saw in the meadow won’t be there; the friends we were with are long gone; the restaurant with the perfect tamales is now a whiskey bar.

We create narratives out of our lives, even if they are not perfectly accurate. When my mother was dying, it was a powerful time for me, and I often recount that story to myself and others. But when I recently reread my journal entry about the days surrounding her death, I found that I had wrongly remembered the sequence of events. I was invested in a certain narrative, but what difference does it make whether she died a different day than I remembered?

I have many stories from my childhood, memories that seem hard-wired into my brain, that seem not just indelible but important to my development as a human being. But then I discover that my six siblings and I all have different stories of growing up; we remember different incidents and remember them differently. So maybe there is no one truth, and we remember only what affected us, stories that we can embellish over time and that we can convince ourselves is true.

Recently a friend brought up a trip we had taken together many years ago. I had no recollection of it. As I get older and lose some of my memory, maybe it’s a comfort that those memories weren’t that accurate to begin with. I struggle with what memory means; if we lose it, are we still who we are?  I have a friend in her late 80s who has lost most of her memory and can hardly remember friends’ names let alone her own past. Yet she’s the same person I’ve known for almost 30 years: smart, funny and generous.  

Maybe it doesn’t matter that I can’t remember everything. There are spiritual teachers who say we are composed of every being and place we’ve come into contact with: not just parents and spouses/partners but coworkers, teachers, roommates and neighbors. We’ve been to places—from mountain vistas to crowded cities—that enlarged our view of the world.  These people and places touched us in some way, changed how we saw life and moved us for whatever reason. All those beings and places are what constitute me, made me who I am. What does it matter if I can’t remember all the details?

5 thoughts on “The Perils of Memory

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  1. I’ve had so many of the same thoughts. When places I revisit are not the same as I remember, I conclude that they’ve aged just as I have. They won’t remain the same any more than I have. But as for remembering things differently … I’ve never revisited the house in which I grew up. The house is now in a designated historical district and is sometimes open for tours. All my siblings have revisited and even know the current owners. But I’ve never wanted to go back — having assumed that of course it will be different and I want to remember it just as it was (or at least as I remember it was). Other memories I can compare with siblings. I have four, and we’ve had more than one conversation about “Was it this way or that way? What do you remember?”

    One place I’ve always remembered that changes very little, relatively speaking, is/are my beloved Rocky Mountains. The peaks, the skylines, are always there. The details may change, trails get washed out or rerouted, businesses along the way change, etc. I always apply a line from Star Trek: They are “ever changing, never changed.”

    But lordy, the stuff I forget and the frustration! Names of people, places, movies … you name it. My son often has to guess who “what’s his name” is, or which movie is “the one where the guy falls off the ledge.” Fortunately he’s very good at it! I know exactly who or what I’m trying to name, but the name just won’t come, at least not at that moment. I turned 80 just a week ago and I assume some of this is to be expected (I hope!) but it’s no less frustrating.

    Of course we are still who we are, even if memory fades. Today I am the sum of every memory, every experience I’ve ever had — good or bad, remembered or not. Each affected me in its time. My forgetting something now doesn’t mean it didn’t happen and therefore doesn’t change who I am now. (I hope that makes sense.)


    1. Susan, I know what you mean about not wanting to go back to places of our childhood. There’s too many memories, especially made when we were young and so impressionable, that it could never be the same place. But even the mountains, which I dearly love, are different for me. It’s not just that the wildfires of the past decade have altered some of my favorite trails (such as the Fern Lake and Cub Lake trails in Rocky Mountain National Park), but these eyes see things differently, no longer fresh. Although I rather be in the mountains than almost any place, I’m not sure I have the same sense of wonder as I did when I was younger.

      I share your frustration at not remembering the names of movies, actors, TV shows. It’s like a guessing game that gets more absurd the further you go: “the actor who was in that movie with the actress who played that woman who was married to the man who was in the movie about the detective” . . . I guess all we can do is laugh.

      I agree with you that we are still the same person, even if we can’t remember. Thanks for your thoughts.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I love this take on memory. Yes, it’s often an illusion but so powerful when we hold onto it. I, too, have been taken aback when I see a familiar past setting that has become seedy or altered beyond its original beauty. Time never stands still even if we do.


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