Human Nature, Jiddu Krishnamurti, Learning, Life, Living, Memory, Quality of Life, Resilience, Self, Spirituality

Memory and Resilience

“There’s no such thing as ruining your life. Life’s a pretty resilient thing, it turns out.” ― Sophie Kinsella

SUMMARY:  How memories might make us less emotionally and psychologically resilient.

(About a 5 minute read)

I admire the grasses.  That family is trod upon, eaten, mowed, and even at times burnt, and yet it usually springs back.  It even sometimes comes up through the cracks in concrete and asphalt.  Grass seems to me almost indestructible, but not because it cannot be destroyed — because it is resilient.

We in America encourage our children to be all sorts of things.  Strong, confident, willful, intelligent, compassionate, kind… but unless “strong” is taken as including resilient, we do not so often encourage them to be that.

Which is curious. The Chinese certainly have a long tradition — perhaps rooted in Taoism — of encouraging resilience as a primary virtue.  But not so much Americans and — apparently — other Europeans as well.  Our cultures have comparatively so little to say about it.

Do we as a culture know how to be resilient?  Do we know what goes into it?  Or even how important it is in life?

Perhaps we think resilience will take care of itself, that we need not encourage our kids to be resilient because they naturally are and will forever be.  But that has not quite been my own experience of the matter.

In my experience, nearly everyone is resilient to some degree — if they only let themselves be.  Kinsella is right: Life is resilient.  But some of us are remarkably resilient.  Much more resilient than others.  My younger brother far outdoes me in it, as do some of my friends. I have learned I can survive anything that doesn’t quite kill me, but I have also learned it can take me decades to recover from some things. In comparison, my brother will sometimes shake off a catastrophe in hours.

In a way, I’m as strong as a gorilla. I can endure tremendous suffering.  But I bounce back from it at a glacial pace.  The continents impress me as race cars in comparison.  Their two to four inch per year “drift” leaves me in their dust.

So what’s the difference between myself and the people I know who are more resilient than me?

After pondering that question for awhile, I have arrived at the tentative conclusion that the key difference possibly might be memory.  I was apparently born with an excellent one.  In recent years, I’ve begun to forget things, but prior to that, I couldn’t get a fact I’d learned out of my mind for decades, even if I’d tried.

I cannot be completely certain, but I suspect that my memory is still comparatively good for a person my age — especially when it comes to recalling abstract ideas, which are for most people some of the toughest things to remember.  But even more than abstract ideas, I can vividly recall the highs and lows of life.  And therein, I think, lies the problem.

Everyone I know who is especially resilient has a bad memory for negative things — and often for positive things as well.  The latter surprises me, but it’s true.  I can recall from decades ago conversations with friends in which they told me how passionate they were about something, but when I mention that to them today, I get blank stares.

Indeed, I once had sex with a woman who at the time enthusiastically complimented me on it.  Years later, I ran into her again. She had completely forgotten!  That sure gave me some peculiar feelings.

My resilient friends forget both the good times and bad much more readily than I do. There are exceptions to that, of course.  I am only speaking in general here.  But memory seems to be the crucial difference between us.

Jiddu Krishnamurti speaks in greater detail, and with greater understanding, of how memory can bring suffering than nearly anyone else I know.  He does not explicitly link a poor memory to emotional and psychological resilience, but the implication is there.

One day, an old man visited Krishnamurti.  Krishnamurti did not recognize him.  The man had to explain that he’d been Krishnamurti’s childhood teacher.  Tearfully, he apologized for every day caning the young Krishnamurti because he had thought that was an appropriate way to force the child to learn.  Krishnamurti could recall nothing of it.

If one cannot forget the past like Krishnamurti, then I think there’s much to be said for Shane Koyczan’s advice: “If your heart is broken, make art with the pieces.” 

That’s the second best solution in my opinion because we can sometimes find only momentary release “making art with the pieces”, and because making art can backfire by reinforcing our memories of the event.  But when it doesn’t do those things, it can be cathartic, allow us to — if not forget something — at least put it into some kind of perspective with the result that we get over it, we bounce back from it.

Questions? Comments?



7 thoughts on “Memory and Resilience”

  1. I was just thinking about the blessing and curse of having a good memory. I seem to remember everything and though it’s a happy feeling to recall the good times, it’s equally melancholic to think of the unpleasant ones..


      1. You are right Paul. We long to relive the times that were, imagining they will relieve the sorrow of the present.


  2. I think there may be a biochemical reason to explain why ‘bad’ memories stick with us. I remember reading somewhere that the ‘fight or flight’ chemicals that are released when we are traumatized or very frightened help to burn the memories of that event sharply into our brains. It was found that dosing a person with a ‘beta blocker’ drug (which somewhat blocks the ‘fight or flight’ chemicals in the body) shortly after a traumatic event helps to blunt the memories of the event.


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