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How the tyranny of memories keeps us from living in the moment

How the tyranny of memories keeps us from living in the moment

My son, who at times struggles with the challenges of autism, also has been given the gift of wisdom. It’s as if the person who first quipped the idiom, “Out of the mouths of babes comes words of wisdom” met first my son. He’s been expressing wise words — and fantastic advice — since he could first speak.

The other day was no different.

I was complaining to my son about my situation, as I was seeing it from my perspective. I was feeling overwhelmed, alone, and helpless. And I was feeling awfully sorry for myself.

All of my life, it seemed, I had helped others — many of whom were grown adults, who you’d think could have helped themselves, but for various reasons, they really couldn’t. I did it all willingly, always. But now, I was feeling very empty, as if I had nothing left to give — and yet, the need for me to help was still there. And, frankly, I was a bit confused as to what would be the next correct step to take, and if I even had it in me to take it.

He suddenly asked me to ask myself, “Is that happening right now?”

“Um, well… no. I mean, it’s going on, generally, but specifically, no, it’s not. Not at this very second,” I answered.

No, at that very second, I was making a cup of coffee, and well… bemoaning my life as I saw it to my son. But, at that very moment, the situation really was all talk and nothing more.

“So live in the moment,” he replied.

Huh. Live in the moment.

Like I said — wise words.

Is it true?

I’m sure we’ve all heard the advice to “live in the moment” before. I certainly have. Hell, I’ve given that advice to others! I also know well the related technique of asking oneself, “Is this true?” So often we tell ourselves lies, and we certainly believe them. But that belief alone doesn’t suddenly transform lies into truths.

But we forget to do that. We forget to ask the question. I sure did. At that moment that I was bitching and moaning, I had forgotten to take a step back and ask, “Is this true? Is this what’s happening right now?”

When you ask and answer those questions, one of the wonderful things that happens is that the feeling known as “overwhelm” is diminished. I was feeling as if I were being smothered in the needs of other people — and the obligation to tend to those needs. But then, once my son suggested that I live in the present moment, just doing so, and realizing that it wasn’t happening right there and then, stopped me from being so overwhelmed by my thoughts.

Recognizing the receiving

However, I don’t want to totally dismiss the feeling that comes when you’ve given and don’t receive in return. I have found myself, over the years, doing a lot of giving, and not necessarily getting back — or at least, being under the illusion that I wasn’t. That’s a tough position to find yourself in. It can feel quite emptying and exhausting, and I was going through exactly those feelings when I was talking to my son.

But note what I also just said — the illusion of not receiving. Of course, I WAS and AM getting back. However, to see that, I had to allow my perspective to shift. Some might call that “counting one’s blessings.” But I think it might go beyond that. There are silver linings within all situations. There’s always the yin to the yang — even when you are right in the midst of dealing with a terrible situation; even when you have trouble seeing that you are actually receiving something in return for all the help you giving.

The intrinsic joy of giving

God loves a joyful giver. And a joyful giver doesn’t expect anything in return — but does anyway. He or she gets joy out of the giving. It’s intrinsic.

I’m an person who truly became an “adult” in the 1990s, and as such, I love the TV series Friends. In one episode (“The One Where Phoebe Hates PBS”), Joey challenges Phoebe with the idea that no one is ever an unselfish giver — that there’s always something to be gained in return. While Phoebe disagrees, try as she may, she can’t come up with a “selfless” act of giving. She always gets something out of it, even if it’s simply the joy that comes from helping someone else.

And if you can feel that joy and embrace it, well — you’re getting not only something in return, but something very wonderful and fulfilling. It’s true that it might be something a little less materialistic and therefore, not so tangible — but it’s there. You might have to dig for it, like a small buried treasure. But if you make the attempt and put in a little effort, there it will be.

All this said, I do believe that you can empty yourself out and that it’s important to feel and be “refilled.” And sometimes, because the act of giving and receiving is such a natural, cyclical event, it seems downright UNNATURAL and even WRONG when it feels like a piece of the circle has been removed — when the giver only gives and the receiver only receives. Anger and resentment are the emotions that arise, and understandably so. Something’s not right: The “system” isn’t working the way it was supposed to work. It’s broken.

Giving back to ourselves

That, however, is the time when we have to take it upon ourselves to give back to ourselves, so that we can proactively receive, even in the absence of gifts from others.

What does that look like? How can we proactively receive by our own accord? I think there are a few ways.

  1. It can be reflection on all the wonderful things you have — counting your blessings.
  2. It can also be prayerfully asking for assistance from God to reveal what good might have come from your giving ways.
  3. It’s taking a moment to feel the joy that comes from knowing that you helped someone.
  4. It’s realizing that something good in the future might be given to you, purely as a gift that requires nothing in return. Some might call that “good karma”; others, “paying it forward,” “random acts of kindness,” or simply folks doing unto others as you would have it done to yourself.

The “tyranny of memories”

Whether or not you believe in the apparition of the Virgin Mary at Medjugorje (I’m personally on the fence), one of her alleged messages struck me in a particular way. She talked to the seers about the “tyranny of memories.”

We typically see memories as a good thing. They can be warm and fuzzy, and even bring a smile to one’s face. As we get older, we cling to them in a very serious way and hope not to lose them. The likelihood of you, my reader, having known someone with Alzheimer’s is so great, I know I don’t have to say how detrimental losing one’s memory can be.

Orthodox Christians and Eastern Catholics wish “eternal memory” to those who have died, which can a double meaning: that of having eternal life via one’s “memories” or thoughts — one’s consciousness — and also being “remembered” eternally by God and always being in his midst.

But, there’s the other side of memories — their “tyranny,” or to put it in other words, the cruel and oppressive side of memories that can trap us and hold us hostage.  Think of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and all the pain and suffering that it causes to those who cannot escape the extreme and very real negative feelings that are tied to their memories.

For those grieving the loss of a loved one, it’s also easy to be caught up in the memories of that person and allow those memories to hold the survivor back. Some might want to wallow in the memories and use them as an excuse to not move forward. Some might relive the painful memories of seeing their loved one suffer.

Again, the memories serve as a trap — a trap filled with lies. Memories aren’t real. They are just a reflection of a reality that is now long gone. It no longer exists. And often, that reflection can be very different than what actually happened. Ask any good trial lawyer how accurate that statement is, and they will concur — different people will remember the very same situation very differently, especially as time goes by.

Ending the tyranny

Of course, the past happens in the blink of an eye, and suddenly, all of our life appears to be nothing more than memories. So living in the moment, although a simple thing to say, is not a simple thing to do. And if we dwell on the frustrations, failures, and regrets of those memories — yes, we are then under their tyranny.

As with many things, I find the first step as a solution to ending the tyranny is realization. STOP. See what’s really going on. See what you are doing. Ask yourself what’s really happening at that very moment.  An answer in this case might be, “I’m allowing past events to haunt me and upset me.”

Step two is to ask the question, “Is it true?” Is it true in that very moment? If the answer is yes, then act accordingly to deal with what’s happening. But if the answer is no, and most likely it will be no, then perhaps, at least for that moment, it’s time to let it go.

Of course, in the heat of that particular moment with my son, I didn’t remember to do any of this. Good habits do have a way of dissolving as time goes on and when they aren’t being actively practiced! Good thing I have a very wise son to remind me that not everything is as horrible as it might seem. Live in the moment.