How reliable are our memories?
My father used to film and photograph the three of us growing up: my brother, sister, and me. An 8mm film camera and slides. I remember sitting in the living room after a family holiday, the curtains closed, the whirring sound of the projector aimed at the wall. Those were the times!
But were they? How does what we experience in our childhood, throughout adolescence and adulthood colour our view of the past? As you are well aware, there is no absolute or objective truth. What we perceive as such, is layered with our experiences and filtered through our subjective eye.
Try it yourself — you can do this at home
A simple test proves this: have a conversation/discussion with someone, play it back in your mind and then tell the other person what has happened, who said what. You will notice that other person has their perspective of events that might not align with yours. I remember in a far past, having had a discussion that sadly ended in a verbal fight — and how later, when that person and I tried to understand what had happened, we both had completely different ideas of (the order of) events, and the cause of everything in the first place.
Down Memory Lane
Recently, my children gave us a big box that had been stored away in the attic, containing 8 mm films, slides, and photos. We went through it and, with much love and attention to detail, my wonderful husband managed to get the films working, recorded them, and transformed them into mp4 files.
For me, watching the old films and slides was a strange experience. There was the joy of recovery, the emotion of seeing my siblings and myself at such a young age, and the images of family passed away, including my parents, captured in them. My paternal grandmother, to whom I always felt so close. But there was another, mixed, feeling that at first I couldn’t quite describe.
After having shared the images with my siblings, my sister said, ‘I love the films but there’s a certain sadness that goes with watching them.’ And I agreed. And realised that what we felt was loss.
Loss of the time when our family had been a happy one, when life hadn’t trampled on souls and love, when sides hadn’t been chosen, and discussions ended with laughter and joy. Loss also of the perception of the past as we “knew” it or thought we knew it based on all those layers of life that followed. The formative years that made us into adults who actually, still had to search for their identity.
Who am I and what are my characteristics and do I like who I am? What doesn’t feel right, what needs improving, what is it that is truly me? Those questions, with the answers, only came to me after my life changed completely and I rebuilt it from scratch. Only then did I realise who I was and that the image of me I’d always carried along, the perception of my character, was not even close to the person I was, I am.
Funny, isn’t it, that you go through decades of life without realising? But there it was. And with it, came insight and acceptance, and joy and exuberance of finally letting the true me “out of her cage” and start living!
Thinking I had it all processed, accepted, and was able to let it lie in the past. And then came the films. The little toddlers, barely able to walk but always with a big smile on their face. My brother, sister, and I. As an avid reader, it’s obvious that I have been from pretty much the day I was born. In one film, I am handing out an open newspaper to my little brother and one-year-old sister for them to read…
It threw me. The happy images, the laughter, somehow it had been silenced over the years. Snowed under. Memories of that happy little family in which I was born, had been put aside and replaced by events that happened after. Somehow, the negative had pushed itself in front of the happiness.
The shock I, and my sister, she told me, felt when we saw those films, the laughter, everything, was a bittersweet one. Rejoicing in our childhood, as well as sadness about how on earth that once happy family managed to grow so apart.
Back to the Future
It also made me think of the present. It’s easy to see in hindsight what went wrong and how that came to pass but I had reconciled with that. I had found closure. Now I realise this closure did not encompass the happy childhood. That is why I revisited my conclusion, my thoughts that lead to the closure to allow for the happy memories to be “part of the package” as well. They, too, are part of the person I have become.
In not recognising all of our past, not just the things we struggled with or that were painful, we deny ourselves a full all-round picture of ourselves, but also a more realistic image of how we became who we are today. It is a challenge, but one worth it because it gives insight and comfort.
Bittersweet because of good intentions gone wrong but also of happy memories. Let’s not forget those in our quest to come to terms with our past, in our journey through life.
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