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Remember a Better Past for a Better Future – The Marriage of Memory and Vision

Illustration from The New Yorker article “The Mystery of S., the Man with an Impossible Memory” by Reed Johnson


I am trying to help a friend whose emotional state has been careening back and forth between anxiety and depression. He is in the classic comfort zone trap described by Robert Gerzon in his book Finding Serenity in the Age of Anxiety. He’s unhappy with where he’s at in his life so he sets his sights on a bigger vision and screwed up his courage to move ahead.

But the closer he gets to having to take action the more his anxiety level ratchets up and he freezes. He slips back into the old comfort zone, which is really more of a misery zone, and depression sets in. He beats himself up for having failed, for being a quitter. Again.

I told him that a big part of his problem is that he is remembering the wrong past. Every time he starts to make a call he’s remembering all of his past rejections. Those painful memories become the brick wall that stops him dead in his tracks. And they crowd memories of his past successes, of which there are many.

Every historian knows that the past is what you choose to remember, and the way that you choose to remember it.

What you choose to remember – the failures or the successes, and the way you choose to remember it – a painful learning experience or a humiliating defeat – will profoundly influence your vision for the future, and your confidence in your ability to make that vision real.

Daniel Schacter is a professor of psychology at Harvard and the author of The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers. In The New Yorker article referenced in the picture caption above, he is quoted as saying that “our all-too-fallible recollections of the past are in fact adaptive, providing the flexibility that allows us to reconfigure memory to imagine our possible futures.”

Think of the implications of that!

If you want to imagine a better future for yourself, one of the most important things you need to do is remember a better past. Remembering a better past will help you create more powerful and exciting Memories of the Future. And in some ways you can remember the future more clearly and more accurately than you can remember the past.

Try this experiment. Do you remember the party your parents gave for your second birthday? Probably not. Can you create a fairly clear picture of where you will be and what you will be doing at this time tomorrow? Probably so.

That’s an apt metaphor for the fact that we tend to give our memories much more credit for being accurate than they deserve, but we sell our future vision short by not believing in the mental pictures we create. When you “remember” a different past, it creates a much more positive and optimistic platform upon which to build your future dreams – your Memories of the Future.

Prove it to yourself. Apply the ten steps in my Memories of the Future Guidebook to a goal or a dream that is important to you. Do it conscientiously and in good faith. See it happening in your imagination in the same way you would see some past event in your memory. Do that for long enough and you might be able to stop imagining it because you will be seeing it.

Pray for Your Friends Book Review

Many thanks to everyone who reviewed the manuscript for my work-in-progress and posted comments on SurveyMonkey. The manuscript is still posted on the website link below, along with the survey. It’s a quick read that addresses one of the most pressing challenges facing our world today – the polarization and hatreds that are ripping at the seams of our society. Thanks!

Pray for Your Friends website

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