Posted by: Banta | February 3, 2016

Memory makes mistakes

what's your story

My great-grandmother Bella knew how to embellish a story. She liked to tell about the day she painted her baby brother bright green. The way she remembered it, she was a bossy nine-year old, and little Riggs was five at the time. I was sure she was making the whole thing up.

“No, baby, I’m telling it straight like it happened. I see it so clear in my mind’s eye. Riggs was too big for his britches. He was sassy and wouldn’t mind me when I had to babysit him. One Saturday I got him real good. Told him how proud Mama and Daddy would be to see him painted the same color as the lawn chairs. Told him he would be their favorite yard art. He fetched the paint and brushes himself. I couldn’t let him down. So I painted him, short pants and all, from the bottoms of his chubby feet to the top hairs of his blond head. I left little white circles around his eyes and one around his mouth, and room to breathe through his nose. He was a masterpiece to behold.” She sighed with pleasure at the memory.

“Course I got the whippin’ of my life when Mama and Daddy got home. Sent to my room without supper. And Mama had to bathe Riggs in turpentine and tomato juice twice a day for a week to get the green tint off his skin. Riggs hated baths. He squirmed and cried like a stuck pig through it all. Served him right. Pesky brat.”

“C’mon, Bella, you didn’t really paint your brother green, did you? He’d have smothered to death or something.”

Bella shrugged off my challenge. “Believe what you like,” she sniffed, “I know what I know.”

Memory makes mistakes. We humans rarely recall events in their entirety. More often, we file them in multiple compartments—the visual in one box, the sensory in another, the tactile in another, and so on. Our memory retrieval is partial and inexact.

Siblings, friends, coworkers, experience the same event and recall it differently. Or not at all. We minimize or we embellish, based on our emotional wiring, our roots, our wounds, our capacity for what AA calls a ‘searching and fearless moral inventory.’ Every time we remember an event, we reconstruct it just a little differently.

Why does this matter? Because we create the narrative of our lives with the building blocks of memory. We humans need a story line. We depend on autobiography to remind us who we are. Yet that very narrative also holds us hostage. It contains the potential for self-harm as well as growth. How we interpret the memories of our past—the elements of our story line—makes all the difference.

Change the story, change your life. Is it really as simple as that? Yes, both as simple and as complicated. Stuff happens to us, joyful stuff, painful and traumatic stuff. We make faulty interpretations of events. We “misremember” bits and pieces, hold on to some of the bits, let go of others. We file, lose, delete, retrieve, reconstitute—in waking hours and in our dreams. Find the thread and follow the story line. Where does it take you?

Think about a story you believe about yourself. How does it serve you? If you told this bedtime story to your child self, would you want to hear it again? Would it give you nightmares? Or would you go to sleep with a smile on your face, feeling safe and loved?

You can change the story line any time you want. With mindful intention, you can live into a new narrative that serves and promotes your greatest good, rather than one that perpetuates old hurts and fears. Philosopher-teacher Wayne Dyer liked to compare a person’s past to the wake behind a boat. Depending on the size and speed of the boat, the wake can be gentle or turbulent, but it has absolutely nothing to do with driving the boat forward. The wake is what the boat leaves behind. Dyer advocated we think of our past as the wake behind the boat, and let it go.

By loosening the attachment to our personal history—that story line that holds us hostage—we give ourselves the freedom to choose a new and more positive story, one that propels us forward rather than keeping us stuck in old patterns. The point is, we get to choose.





  1. wow – this is so so true!! I love the guidance about how with ‘mindful intention you can live into a new narrative that serves and promotes your greatest good, rather than one that perpetuates old hurts and fears.’ – completely makes sense all around. thank you for this wonderful post! Happy February – Leap Day Month!

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