Better Than Nothing

To hear my grandma talk about my grandad, you would think he was perfect. He was tragically killed as a passenger in a car that was hit by a train a few months before my father was born. When she spoke about him as I was growing up, she could have been talking about Superman. There was nothing about him that wasn’t noble, exceptional, and perfect. I didn’t know him (obviously), however, she talked the same way about my father, and I do know him, so I think her memory was a little biased.

Jennifer Armentrout said, “Memories, even bittersweet ones, are better than nothing.” Memorial Day is about remembering. The first national observance of Memorial Day occurred on May 30, 1868.  It is traditionally a day for honoring and mourning the U.S. military personnel who died while serving in the United States Armed Forces. However, many people use this day to remember and visit the graves of loved ones, regardless of whether they served.

As I was thinking about Memorial Day and the way my grandma remembered my grandad and my dad, I started thinking about the way we remember things in general. We often think of memory as a recording and remembering as playing back that recording. In other words, we think we remember things in much the same way as we experienced them.

In fact, we actually store information in ways that make sense to us, not necessarily the way it occurred. We extract the gist, or underlying meaning, from the information we receive and then process it through our existing schemas. Schemas are our way of making sense of the world and understanding how to react to the things around us. They are created by our past experiences and our social values. Therefore, they are capable of distorting unfamiliar or unconsciously unacceptable information so it will fit within our existing knowledge.

The trauma of losing my grandfather and being left a widow with three young children caused my grandma’s memory of my grandad to be edited, making him a saint. Even if you had evidence to the contrary, you could not have convinced her otherwise. A person’s confidence in their own memory is sometimes undiminished even in the face of evidence that their memory of an event is false. It’s the only record they have, and they will defend it vigorously.

It took me a long time, but I finally learned that when someone says, “so-and-so said such-and-such,” I should hear, “I believe I heard so-and-so say such-and-such.” I have no doubt that they remember hearing or seeing what they are now repeating; I also have no doubt that what was said or done and what they are repeating could be different. Remembering that what people say about an event I was not a witness to is always an interpretation of that event helps me balance my response. 

Because our memories are not accurate recordings, we should always be slow to devalue other people’s recollection. We should acknowledge that each person’s memory is the version of the past that makes the most sense to them—not inaccurate in a literal sense but filtered in a way that highlights some things and minimizes others. Knowing this, we can be less defensive about protecting our version and benefit from the opportunity to see things through other people’s eyes.

We all record things with our own filters and biases. Leaders acknowledge this about themselves and listen to other people’s views to better understand what has happened and, more importantly, what other people believe happened. It helps if we remember, “I don’t know what I said until you tell me what you heard.”

A community that values the way each member processes information and provides healthy ways for us to compare and learn from each person’s view truly demonstrates the equal and intrinsic value of everyone. Our memories may not be a recording, but they are better than nothing, and they are a valuable part of a healthy community and the Bison Way.