Mark Twain once said, “I have such a good memory that I recall things that never happened.” Mark Twain was making fun, but in fact, his ‘tongue-in-cheek’ remark about memory says more than we realise.
How good is your memory? Without a doubt, memory is a great blessing, the vehicle that enables both nations and individuals to survive. But, as history can reveal, it can also be a curse, which can ruin our lives, deprive us of happiness and destroy our peace of mind. How many relationships have been destroyed because of an incident that will never be forgotten or overlooked?
Sometimes our memory takes us back to the past—our childhood days, times of innocence, when we had good days—‘the good old days’. But I’m not sure they were all good days. We have progressed so much in recent decades. The rose-coloured lenses of memory can be a real stumbling block to appreciating what we have in the present. You could possibly have a toxic memory.
Memories Can Be Toxic
Let me describe what I mean. Two brothers attend church each week, and had done so for years. They sat across from each other in the front row of the church for years—yet they hardly acknowledged each other’s presence. Finally, the minister had the opportunity to ask what had happened. What was the response?
- Well, Reverend, I and David had an argument a number of years ago.
- How long ago? the minister interrupted.
- Oh, at least 30 years if not more.
- What was it about? the minister asked.
- To tell you the truth, I don’t even remember, but I sure was mad!
Now that is a toxic memory that is destructive beyond the memory itself!
This may seem silly, but it has an edge in which we can relate. Perhaps you’ve heard the joke, which is really not so funny: “When I and my spouse argue she (or he) gets historical”. “You mean hysterical”. “No, historical, recounting every slight, every hurt, every disappointment over the length of our marriage.”
Sounds familiar? Our memories can really hurt us. Sometimes there is little we can do to heal from the wounds of the past, but other times we can choose to put what happened in the past in its proper place, and move on. I often say life is too short to hang on to the small irritations of life.
Memories Can Make Us Feel Guilty
Or we might have guilty memories. There is so much power in the word ‘if’:
- If I’d only called the doctor in time.
- If I had only slowed down.
- If I wouldn’t have moved so far from my parents.
- If I would’ve just spent more time with my kids.
- If I hadn’t looked away I could have saved him.
These are strong statements of self-accusation. Memories that lead to guilt are like leeches that suck the lifeblood right out of us. Guilt cannot bring back the dead, or save lost relationships or mend any wounds. Memory is both friend and foe, to be cultivated, but also to be guarded, not lest we forget, but lest we remember the wrong things and forget what makes life worth living.
Each of us carries around a sack full of emotional memories. Some are good, some bad, a few are exciting, and others may even frighten. And years later, they can still make us smile or weep. Each imprint on our hearts and minds becomes part of us and, like it or not, influence our beliefs and attitudes.
And that’s where we need to be careful. Because if you and I allow a memory too much influence over our present or our future—we have a problem. Why? Because factors like feelings, opinions, the people involved, and physical conditions affect and distort them.
Memory can be a wonderful blessing. It can bring smiles, laughs, or even tears of joy as we look at pictures, share stories, or just think about the good times of bygone days. One writer said, “Memory is the way of holding on to the things you love, the things you are, the things you never want to lose.”
I think it’s important to know that every memory you have is filtered through the lens of your own personal perspective. Which is why eye-witnesses will have completely different stories when giving detailed accounts of an event. Emotions and past experiences will always influence your perspective, perception, and therefore, your memories.
We Can Change the Meaning and Power of Memories
What most influences your memories? Christian psychologist David Seamands said, “We cannot change our memories, but we can change their meaning and the power they have over us. With God’s help, you and I can control our memories and not allow them to control us.”
Have you ever had a day ruined because you were unable to shake an unpleasant memory? Or had a perfectly good experience deteriorate because an unexpected unpleasant past moment popped to mind? I have that too—but I can learn as you can. There is good news. You and I don’t have to let our memories mess with our today or our tomorrow: You may not be able to change your memories but you can change the power your memories have over you.
With God’s help, you can have peace and move on. God and the Holy Spirit is more powerful than your memory. Lewis Smedes says: “Forgiving does not erase a bitter past. 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.”
And spend time in prayer—ask God to give you everything you need to manage your memories and your attitude. Don’t run from your emotions. Good or bad they are part of who you are. Learn how to manage and use them for success. The psalmist in the Old Testament had the right idea in his prayer (Psalm 143:5–6 – GNT):
I remember the days gone by;
I think about all that You have done,
I bring to mind all Your deeds.
I lift up my hands to You in prayer;
like dry ground, my soul is thirsty for you.
Make new memories! Make lots of happy memories. Everyone has painful memories but with intentional effort, it’s possible to make plenty of positive memories to overshadow the difficult ones.