“Except for memory, time would have no meaning.” Pat Conroy (Beach Music)
I once met Pat Conroy in a fine Italian restaurant in Beaufort, South Carolina. I knew of his books but only because I had seen the movies, having dismissed his writing, unread, as mere populist fiction. However, after meeting him, and being impressed with his openness and general likeability, I decided to read “The Prince of Tides”. Wow! I was mesmerized, (and totally wrong about him). The novel was not only beautifully written and extremely engaging, but it was also deeply psychological, populated with stories of human frailty, hurtful memories, hopeful yearning and, yes, romance. A powerful stew – weaving themes and personalities into a great read. I now think differently about Mr. Conroy’s writing.
Conroy’s quote about memory just seemed to stick, probably because of its reference to time which I find a diabolically elusive concept. This quotation gives time a firm footing… a tangible relationship to some other thing, “ memory”, which it otherwise lacks. Without memory time is a pretty meaningless phenomenon in our everyday life.
So, what then is memory, and why does it seem to help us get a sense of time? Science tells us that it is a function of our brain – more crudely, our “memory banks”. Brain function and events aside, it’s well-known that our mind is able to “recall” things from our past – the emphasis is on re-call or bring-back. Events from another time are somehow re-examined. Our life itself is essentially defined and ordered by our memories (and what we’ve been able to learn and embed into our present selves). Words, concepts, smells, tastes, sound, feelings, etc… are all arranged in an order that corresponds to the narrative that is our life…experiences piling up, one atop another, creating a sense of time in an otherwise chaotic world and existence. Without our memories there would be no past, just a “now”.
So-called normal folks seem to be able to keep their memories in a consecutive pattern that reflects the order in which they occurred. This is all well and good. But, what happens as we age? Memories get jumbled. In extreme cases, such as in dementia, memories not only become elusive, or lost, but they often begin to change order. An ailing mother mistakes her grandson for her long-dead husband. She thinks she’s still in high school. Time no longer has any relevance in her mind because everything, all her memories, have moved into the present. It’s all happening now! Is her mind playing tricks on her, or is time flexible and fluid? Does it bend like light? Or, does time even exist outside of our memories or minds?
There’s a great line in the song, “She’s Got You” by Hank Cochran which goes like this: “I’ve got your memory, or has it got me” (Patsy Cline did a fine rendition). Have you ever had moments in your life when memories became so vivid that they almost took over the moment? Thoughts about a past love; a deal gone wrong; a great bottle of wine; a storm; a perfect sunset; an accident…memories allow you to virtually experience the event again… sometimes to relish, others to fear. Time becomes secondary, maybe irrelevant, the memory absorbs you… then suddenly you’re brought back to the present, almost “awakening”, and you say, “where the hell did the time go?”
In some cases, such as in the Cochran song a person is dominated by a memory (in this case a lost love) to the point that the memory literally takes hold of them. In extreme cases, those same memories distort the present and cause serious psychological problems, like a delirious patient in a mental ward whose memories become more real than so-called “reality”. Such can be the power of memory.
Another way of looking at memory is by considering its connective property. This is a phenomenon I call “bridging” whereby a current experience connects you to a former experience so convincingly that they seem to be almost happening simultaneously. For me, this most frequently happens with my sense of smell. It is thought that our olfactory system is the most reliable of all our senses for remembering the past. An odour wafts past my nose and immediately it connects to me to a similar though previous experience. The past event is thrust into my mind, overwhelming my thoughts and merging with the present activity. The two experiences are linked together. This happens with perfume that women wear – I meet a group and one woman in the group is wearing a familiar perfume and I suddenly think my wife is present. Wine has this same effect. One wine becomes a reflection of another I had years before. I almost feel I’m drinking the first one all over again. It’s an amazing experience.
If there is a life lesson to be had from this reflection I would say that it would be to focus on memories, and discount the importance of time. Try to exclusively focus on your good memories. Time, if it’s real, will look after itself. Positive memories have the ability to colour not only your present, but also your future. People who are able to call up a past successful accomplishment can often use it as a tool to do something similar… they are actually emboldened by the positive memory to not only do it again, but do it better. When I was playing professional golf many of my best shots occurred when I recalled a great shot that I’d previously made in a similar circumstance – the memory of the former shot became a positive “swing thought” – creating a kind of visualization, that carried me into replicating the same good shot, and result. My professional career was also enhanced by my mantra which was “visualize, actualize, realise”. I developed a feeling of being “in the moment” thanks to a moment (seemingly) far removed from my present circumstance, but, that was in and of itself, a “high definition” motivating memory. Both the memory of the golf shot and the present shot seem to happen simultaneously, instantaneously. Outside time, at the speed of light, now.
Of course there are times when an event can seem excruciatingly slow. Fear often is the culprit as it comes into the picture (fear learned from personal memories or from stories) in these events. There’s a terrific line in Gordon Lightfoot’s song “The Edmund Fitzgerald” where the crew of a large ship are experiencing a life-threatening, fierce storm. His lyrics eloquently illustrate what negative thoughts, fear itself, can do to our perception of time. Tales of former shipwrecks and maritime disasters come smashing into the present, bending time. The song says, “Does anyone know where the love of God goes when the waves turn the minutes into hours”. The desperate desire to escape death puts the breaks on time… almost grinding it to a halt. I once experienced this effect on time when I was involved in a car accident. I was sitting in traffic and noticed a car approaching me from behind and it was not slowing down… as it crashed into my car everything went into slow motion and I remembered everything. My glasses flew off my face into the back seat as my head was smashing into the back of the seat, the sounds were all distinct and I even noticed a woman watching it all happen from the adjacent sidewalk. I was able to make a clear assessment of the accident as it happened, recording it all, even though it happened in mere seconds.
I often look to writings by reputable people who recommend mediation as a path to contentment. The overriding outcome (theme) is a peaceful mind. By meditating we can control the constant flittering thoughts of our conscious mind which is constantly thinking about the past and often worrying about the future. In some Eastern schools of thought our mind is compared to the actions of a drunken monkey whose actions take him/her in random directions, never resting. Absolute chaos. Sages meditate to quiet their “monkey” mind; they send out loving thoughts; and, they smile a lot. The smiling is not deliberate; it is a result of successful meditation and, of course, living in a manner that does not adversely affect others. They are content… and I think I know why. The answer lies in this ability to control their mind. They (probably) are able to conjure up happy or positive thoughts at will, and not have those thoughts infiltrated by negative memories or thoughts. Marcus Aurelius once wrote:
“Tranquility is nothing else than the good ordering of the mind”.
Perhaps, contentment and happiness may be achieved by nothing more than by keeping your good memories vivid and aligned for easy recall. It’s by looking back at your good fortune (discarding our setbacks), and reveling in it, that will carry you forward into the future. Remember the good experiences as you go boldly forward. As Yogi Berra said, “The future ain’t what it used to be”. It doesn’t have to be a reflection of the bad things from your past…so take heed! Stay positive when you remember.