As we age and learn, we often recast the things we experienced in earlier life in light of that new knowledge. We intentionally re-contextualize and re-index. We discover and formulate a larger—and hopefully more complete—story of that experience.
Sadly, in the process we also tend to rob much of the vital essence from those experiences. We not only re-contextualize them, but we re-imagine or recast them into something they never were. We steal away necessary contrasts in the name of consistency and crush small and innocent joys under the weight of later learned disappointment.
A couple of examples.
A few weeks ago I went to lunch with a friend to discuss a novel project I’m engaged in. My four year old son was with me, so we chose a fast food joint with an indoor play place (Carl’s Jr. in Spanish Fork, Utah). My son spent the next two hours hooting and screaming and climbing all over the elaborate tower/tube playground, obviously enjoying himself.
Then it was time to go home, and he was predictably sad. As I packed my boy into the minivan, I asked him if he had fun. He looked up at me with a pouty lip and tears in his eyes and said, “No.”
“No fun at all?”
“No. I sad. I hated it.”
“But you were laughing and playing with new friends.”
“NO! I SAD!”
I knew he had fun; I had listened to his delighted shrieks for two hours. In his moment of frustration at stopping, all he could see was the pain of loss. It was a true perception of the moment, but not a true observation on the event.
A few years ago I worked peripherally with the Topaz Historical Society, and attended a number of reunion gatherings of survivors of that WWII Japanese internment camp near Delta, Utah. By then, most of those who were adults during the internment were either ill or deceased, so most of the attendees were children while at Topaz.
I tended to just hang around and listen to people talk of their experience. One man spoke about playing baseball and how much he missed the camaraderie. Nearby a woman spoke of how she would make necklaces from shells and bits of metal and proudly show them to her mother, and how that sweet memory became bitter for her when she understood later in life that she was a prisoner.
It’s not my right to second-guess her experience, but I couldn’t help but notice the differences between the gently wistful look on her face as she told the first part of the story, and the cold anger as she recast the experience in the second. As a little girl she *did* have fun, and she *didn’t* feel the pain of internment.
Both parts of that experience are real and valuable. It would be a shame to lose the memory of child-like joy despite the context.
A few years ago a presenter at the AML Conference discussed a new work where the author recast her experience growing up in downwind-Utah during the Fifties. It seemed to be a somewhat cynical, angry recasting of a generally happy childhood in light of later life choices and realizations, with the narrative offered in fifties sitcom-like parody.
I didn’t read the book despite the good report and praise, because I couldn’t get over the idea of wholesale rejection of once-pleasant memories as falsehoods and phantoms. The happy memories were real, even if later experience *also* revealed them to be naïve.
I find myself doing the same with my own experiences. Right now my family is somewhat cash-poor, with the result than some things that used to be easy have become hard. I can’t help but remember back to a few short years ago when cash was not a problem, and budgetary concern was a broad pattern of discretionary spending rather than how we will pay both gas and electric bills.
It would be easy to remember 2010 as simple and easy because we had cash to spend and no major financial worries. But that would be inaccurate. I was under tremendous stress at work to justify my project’s value to the company (I clearly failed and was laid off later that year); I traveled a lot and missed many family activities. At the time I thought I was miserable, even though now I can see that I was carefree and happy.
Both perceptions are accurate. I was financially carefree even if I was professionally stressed. That I would now happily accept that stress in order to gain that financial independence is not at all false, but neither is the fact that at the time I considered that stress all but crippling and it made me miserable.
As we tell our stories, whether in personal history and journal or in fiction, it’s useful to remember that broad interpretive statements of how a time was or what it meant are pretty much incomplete by definition. Experience is complex, contradictory, and always in a state of reinterpretation that should add new layers of meaning. But to me, that’s the key—adding new layers, not replacing old ones.
While it is useful to re-contextualize experience in light of new knowledge that increases our overall understanding, it would be a shame to recast too much of it to fit an interpretive model that has nothing to do with the local context and carelessly discard some of the rich dimensionality of human experience.