Reliable Stories


I watched a short documentary about memory last night in which the featured neuroscientists all concluded that our memories are totally unreliable. A grown woman remembered seeing smoke wafting across the Hudson from her classroom on the morning of 9/11. Except her classroom did not face the Hudson, and the Twin Towers were 40 miles away. Another woman accused the wrong man of raping her because detectives were able to convince her his was the face of her assailant, even though the true rapist was standing beside the innocent man in the lineup. DNA evidence eventually freed the first man.

At least I think all the neuroscientists agreed that memory is unreliable. Maybe it was only one scientist. I know the documentary featured several neuroscientists. Or maybe that was the next episode in the series, the one about mindfulness. Maybe the memory episode only had one scientist. I can’t really remember. I also don’t care.

Given that I only write about my own experiences, which by definition are memories since I don’t write about the fact that I’m sitting at my desk writing, you might think my unreliable memory would disturb me. Quite the opposite. I’ve always thought facts were the least important ingredient in my stories. I don’t deliberately invent scenes, I don’t say I’ve done something if I didn’t do it, but I don’t worry about getting things factually correct. I’m not a journalist, and I’m not in a courtroom. I’m a storyteller, and my audience and I live in the here and now.

The more I tell them, the more convinced I am that stories set in the past are not about the past at all. Every story is about the present. The source material we call memories are meant to illuminate life as it is being lived, not as it was lived. It doesn’t matter if I’m happy because I’m remembering the afternoon I first kissed my wife, or if I’m grieving because I’m remembering the death of my cat Lou six years ago—I’m feeling what I’m feeling now. Now is where I exist and all I actually care about. Now is where life is lived, where love is loved, and where stories arrive to guide us toward what we call the future.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual coaching and group workshops.