My father is just shy of his 8th decade on earth. He’s “been around the block,” filled with a lifetime of experiences that has caused him to grow, like all of us, physically, mentally, and spiritually.
Yet ask him about his collection of baseball cards from the 4th grade and he’s still there, sitting in Mrs. Kofkin’s class, watching the thin, pinch-faced woman snatch his cards away from him.
“She never gave them back,” my father says, a flood of emotion in his voice.
Psychological scientist and author, Dr. Julia Shaw studies what she refers to as “false memories” that “corrupt our identities, politics and justice system.” It is our perception of the past that forms our emotional story and sometimes even facts:
“Everyone thinks that they couldn’t be tricked into believing they have done something they never did, and that if someone were telling them about a false memory, they would be able to spot it. But we found that actually, people tend to be quite susceptible to having false memories, and they sound just like real memories.” (Dr. Shaw, UCL Psychology and Language Sciences)
This idea that we can falsely believe something that didn’t happen to us or that we never experienced directly fascinates me. So, I asked my father recently to share his well-told childhood experience with Mrs. Kofkin again.
“What did Mrs. Kofkin look like?”
“I don’t remember. But she took those cards from me. They were my cards. They weren’t hers to take. She just grabbed them from me.”
It occurred to me that the details of his memory weren’t important; what mattered was the feeling provoked—after so many decades—from the memory itself.
It was the feeling of the event that made all the difference, that kept his childhood “violin song” playing. I thought, this isn’t even about a stack of baseball cards from 7 decades ago. There’s something more here.
“Was Mrs. Kofkin mean to you?”
“No…she was just doing her job.”
“Who are you upset with then?”
(And here it came.)
“My parents. They knew how much those cards meant to me. I begged them to speak to my teacher and get them back. But they said they didn’t have time.”
So, there it was: my father’s memory that stirred a feeling of pain wasn’t about Mrs. Kofkin or the baseball cards. The teacher and cards were an illusion, preventing this almost 80-year-old man from seeing the source of the hurt: the message from his parents that his needs and wants didn’t matter.
We talked more about his parents not realizing they were hurting him, that they were busy running a store and doing, like most parents, the best they could. The pain they caused their son wasn’t personal or intentional.
One childhood memory and a world-altering perception to digest.
Yes, our perceptions create our reality, but our past perceptions do so as well. Our memories are like the wake of a ship, offering a trail of perceptions that buoy us along to the ever present. We have the power to consider that trail and perceive it through a different lens and by extension, shift the course of our present and future.
So, the next time you find yourself beating the drum of a past unpleasant or even traumatic event, dive into that memory until you unearth something you didn’t notice before. You just might find a perceptual treasure to steer you in a more peaceful, promising direction.