The Voice of Experience: The past is what we choose to remember

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Since the past is the sum total of all we have ever learned, experienced and sense, the memory banks can be pretty full — there is a lot to recall, if we wish, or not recall if the memory is too painful or negative. And all too often we hear people speak of only the negative things that have happened — how terrible the weather was last summer or wondering why Joe and Sally had to split up.

These negative recollections, if dwelled upon, can be quite harmful to one’s mental, emotional and physical health. Focusing on negativity often sets the adrenaline surging out of control, tensing muscles, causing anger and tears, generally upsetting one’s life. So, it really is necessary to take a good look at our past, and decide what it is that we wish to remember.

In talking with my husband on the topic of this column, we started reminiscing about some of the memories we have shared over our 35 years together. We agreed that there were many things better left behind a closed door in our collective mind! But there are so many more special incidents that we could recall with joy and laughter. And we have found that most of our favourite memories are of little things — like the time we were walking downtown from our B&B in a small Scottish town, and a rather elderly ginger cat called to us from across the road, then came trotting over for some pats, purring loudly all the while, and then headed home! Total strangers we were, but he knew we were “cat people” just the same. He still makes us smile.

Over the years, we have spent quite a lot of time on Isla Mujeres, a little island in the Caribbean just off Cancun, Mexico. There are many good memories, but one of the most truly incredible was walking along a boardwalk one Christmas Eve and seeing light from a full moon shining on one of the rollers coming into land — pure liquid silver!

Going back in my memory to my childhood in southern Ontario, my Dad and I went down to the maple bush to sugar off the tree sap in a cauldron over an open fire — I smell it, I taste it, I feel it every time I pour maple syrup (the medium kind) over my pancakes.

In my work as a stress therapist, I frequently hear about the negatives in a client’s life, both past and present, and usually am able to help them deal with the unpleasantness that is so stressful and help them think of more positive things. Worrying is one of the things that pulls people down the most — finances, family upsets, old disputes or whatever. And in many cases, if we can use the word “concern” in place of “worry”, the tension is greatly relieved. The past begins to look less ominous and less likely to hold their attention. There are, of course, many other reasons for negativity in the past, differing in type and intensity with the individual.

An old song, first broadcast in 1944 (thank you, Buddy Gold, of CROC Radio for looking up the year) says it all, I believe:

You’ve got to accentuate the positive,

Eliminate the negative,

Latch on to the affirmative,

Don’t mess with Mister In-Between.

So, choose the memories that are positive, those that make you smile. We try to recall at least one of those each day so that we can enjoy these special moments again. Remember that some memories make us happy and others make us sad. Our choice!

Mary Underhill is a stress therapist and grief counsellor.