Every day you live, you collect stuff. Just imagine the sheer volume of information that passes into your psyche every day, from what you see, what you read, what you experience, what you think, what you do (consciously or unconsciously), and the decisions you make. Every second - awake or asleep - you're (in the words of that old Kodak commercial) ‘makin’ memories. ’ Your senses, your emotions, your intellect, your imagination, your judgment: they're all working together to inform you about your world and, therefore, about yourself. If you were a giant hard drive, you'd quickly run out of memory.
Is it any wonder, then, that the further we progress into the midlife experience, the longer it takes us to process all this ‘stuff'? Psychologists suggest that, as time goes on, the more you learn, the more you forget. Experience suggests that, regardless of how much you forget, your learning capacity continues to expand. Like any bodily function, memory works on a ‘use it or lose it’ basis, yet, regardless, the older and deeper the memory, the longer-lasting it will be. Even the elderly suffering from mental deterioration (OBS) will respond positivley to childhood memories (like songs or nursery rhymes).
People tend to think of their mental functions (including memory) as going on only in the gray matter between their ears, but memory is a far more mysterious phenomenon than that. In a very real sense, every cell has its own memory. One of the challenges that body conditioning faces is overcoming ‘muscle memory', which arises out of repetitive motion and enables the muscle to operate in a certain way with a minimum of stress. Trauma to the organism is remembered everywhere, not just in the brain.
The human organism is omnivorous: it devours everything fed to it indiscriminately. The memory doesn't discriminate between what's trash and what's treasure. It all goes in, and most of it stays. What gives most memories their vitality can be traced back to the emotions that get stored along with them. Once again, the memory does not discriminate between pleasant and painful memories; between pleasure-inducing thoughts and anxiety-producers. If you take a moment to scan your memories (especially if you've quieted yourself for meditation), you'll quickly see that the painful memories (hurt, disappointment, guilt, shame) are the ones that seem to move to stage center.
When you look in the mirror, who is it that you see? One thing's for certain: you're not seeing yourself as you are; you're seeing yourself as you were, through the lens of all those emotion-laden memories. Some are invigorating: providing emotional energy to get you up and going. Others (the painful ones) are energy sinks, draining you of satisfaction and vitality. Can you look yourself in the eye and not flinch or turn away? If not, what is it that you're really seeing?
My office work area is a mess. Papers and books are piled up all over the place. I know where everything is (well, maybe not everything), but the disorganized piles of crap are pulling at me, even as I write. The same thing happens with unfinished business: calls and emails not returned, little projects left until later, a stack of bills to be looked through, a burned-out light bulb. These, too, are energy sinks. There's other crud in there, too: things I've said and things I've done that I'm not proud of, people I've offended, dismissed or taken advantage of knowingly, little fibs and dishonesties (or even lies and cheating) that lie rotting on the refuse pile of my memory. Midlife comes upon us as the time when the pile has become too big, the stench is starting to get to us, and the energy drain is really making it hard for us make any progress.
What do you do when you can't stand to look at the mess in your house or in your back yard (or in your car)? You take the time to clean it up and get rid of the junk. Midlife offers you the opportunity to clean house: to take inventory of those memories and to do whatever's necessary to drain those noisome memories of thier emotional virulence. The process is simple, but many people get scared of it. All you need to do is to take a personal inventory of what's wrong (preferably a written one), share the contents of your list with someone you trust (this is not an optional element), and then do what you can to make amends: finish the unfinished, make (whenever possible) for any dishonesty, repay your debts. What's been draining out all this time (along with your vital energy) is your self-esteem. Isn't it time to recover it?
Some say, “If you want self-esteem, do esteemable acts. " I can't agree more. On the other hand, merely doing good deeds without cleaning up the wreckage of the past leaves you like the guy who puts fresh paint on dryrotted wood. The decay continues under the surface vaneer until it finally breaks through, not only looking worse than ever, but exposing the corruption underneath. Since midlife serves as your opportunity to become the ‘self’ you've always wanted to be, you can't accomplish that feat without looking into your own calm, clear eyes in the mirror and seeing someone whom you truly love and admire.
H. Les Brown, MA, CFCC
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Copyright © 2008 H. Les Brown