The malleability of memory and meaning.
The legendary storyteller Robert McKee once said, “Before a story begins, life rests in a state of balance. Until… something happens.”
I know how it goes. When I was twenty years old, I moved to a bigger city to attend the university there. At the same time, I also quit a long-time commitment to sports. Although these were big changes, I felt like I could manage them.
My life was still in balance; I still felt like the small-town, sports-career type of person. This wasn’t the something.
The first weeks were exciting. I was introduced to my classes and made acquaintances with my fellow students. It was good. I liked it in the big city, and I had more time than ever to enjoy it. But while exciting at first, going through all these changes did something to me.
My physical reality had changed, but my psyche was lagging behind. But surely enough, it caught up and started to affect me. Something happened.
I began a slow decline into depression. I had abandoned everything I had known, and I started to feel weird about who I was. It gradually got worse, but I hoped that, to have it better, something would come and change things for me.
And something did. At New Year’s Eve that year, I met a girl. And with the onrush of feelings that came with it, the unpleasant feelings washed away. Life felt good again.
But sadly, it didn't last very long. While I was distracted by all the positive feelings, the depression had grown in my unconscious.
And when the first impressions of the relationship started to fade, it came back — with a stronger force this time. The relationship couldn’t take it, and we eventually broke things off. It crushed me. Hands shaking, temples pounding, an upper body inhaling frigid air.
To this date, this is the worst thing I’ve ever experienced. Yet, I’ve still revisited this story multiple times ever since. Not because I’m a sadist who enjoys the pain, but because of what it enables in me.
From the ashes of one story, a new one is born. I’m guessing you’ve probably had some bad experiences yourself. And though it’s not tempting, I encourage you to revisit them. Here’s why:
Ruled by Story
We all have a personal story. It helps us make meaning of ourselves and the world around us, and allows us to nest together various life-events into a coherent whole. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to learn from the past or make plans for the future.
It’s an overview of ourselves. When an event occurs, it has the possibility of becoming part of this story. While all events will have taken place in an objective sense, it’s not that simple on the subjective level.
Since you’re the one telling a story to yourself, you can choose whether to admit certain details. So, when something happens that you don’t want to be part of your story, you reject it. Or you can try at least.
According to a study from Boston College, while minor, repetitive events will fade in your memory by themselves, emotionally significant events will not. When something big happens, it etches itself into memory. The things you don’t want there are the things that will affect you the most.
And though you might come to a point where you feel like you’ve rejected it, it will still reside in your unconscious. The information is stored in your body (popularly called trauma), and it will affect your life whether you like it or not.
It might seem counter-intuitive, but it’s only by allowing the event that it can end up having a positive effect.
A Never-Ending Possibility
Not all stories are happy-go-lucky tales. There are tragedies as well. But in contrast to Hollywood movies, where a tragic story ends in credits and we’re left with heavy emotions, our stories don’t end there.
We continue to live, and with that, comes the possibility of rewriting it. To do that, however, you first have to acknowledge the tragic event.
You have to process it, consciously, and allow it a part in your story. And while it will feel like a tragedy at first, you become free of it once you deal with it.
After the breakup, I realized that nothing and no one would come and save me. I had to do it myself. And I first had to understand what really happened.
Because the event was so emotional, it affected my ability to see things clearly. It was chaos. But once I started to write about it, laying out the core elements of the story, it seemed like I could put my thoughts in order.
I had a hard time expressing myself at first though; I was no writer. But I kept at it — repeatedly revising the story — and little by little I started to grasp what had happened in full. And with that, I was ready for the next step.
The Perspective of the Hero
By memory, you’re allowed to revisit the past. But as research suggests, you’re also allowed to change it. Yes, the tragic event is painful in the moment, there’s no denying that. But by processing it you can change what it means.
Because it’s your story, you’re also the author of the story. You can see the pain as something positive — or at least as a catalyst to something positive. You can change your perspective, understand how it has benefited you in some way, and over time, the memory itself will change.
By revisiting your worst experiences, you enable a better story. I know it’s possible. As for my tragic event, I’ve come to see it as a new starting point in my life.
It’s the event that changed me for the better. And without it, I wouldn’t have been the same person as I am today. I’m stronger, wiser, more at peace.
Things are bound to happen. And some of those things will throw your life out of balance. What matters is what you do once that happens to you. In the great (happy ending) movies, the story doesn’t end with a tragedy.
That’s where it begins. The hero faces up to it, finds a way to overcome it, and is rewarded for their efforts. Realize you play the same part in your own.
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