Memory’s Patina

In courtroom psychology, where facts are king, memory has been shown to be one of the more unreliable tools for discovery. Each time we recall an event, our brains add to or subtract from the experience, creating a patina, adding layers of varnish or grime so that while the antique table of our memories looks less and less like it did the day that memory was made, we only recognize it years later as the shiny antique we now see.

If an ancient memory is like an antique table, what is the value of stripping it back to its bare facts? For those who love the PBS show Antique Road Show you know that stripping the patina and refinishing a piece of old furniture actually lessens the value of it, but in some cases a painting or piece of furniture can also be restored by an expert, giving it even greater value. In the same way, your memory, coated over with layers, may become less valuable as a tool to illuminate beauty and principle if stripped by confrontation with the basic facts; as if it were a pearl stripped back to the initial grain which irritated the oyster. On the other hand, the idea of “cleaning or restoring” corresponds to the idea that we might take that memory and distill from it the underlying principle, making it elegant again.

We do not want to strip the memory to bare facts, but we do want to highlight the beauty of what we learned from it, what stays with us as evidence of the refining of time which makes it more valuable. It isn’t the wood of the table (though it may be from an extinct tree such as the American chestnut – that is the like the last remaining person whose personal memory includes World War One). The beauty is the patina itself, something nobody could create, it’s only made by time.

So. Memories attached to emotions, are one of the most reliable tools for getting at the principles of what impact events have had on the speaker’s life. For example, my memories of Congo are not perhaps factual, (see Congo blogs in archives) but the principles I’ve drawn highlight what was valuable in the experience.

We might even say that the writers of the four Gospels, who waited some thirty years, may not have given us the facts, in the strictest sense, that they might have if they were involved in some sort of daily journalism during the days of Christ. On the other hand, their somewhat delayed picture may be even more valuable for the patina they added; the things they remembered because of how the principles continued to ring true over time come closer to an illumination of the indelible reality Jesus left them with than what a newspaper man might have given us looking at events in real time.

The Listener understands that truth may contain facts, but no true story contains all facts, and therefore a motivational listener is unconcerned with knowing all facts. Long before Christ walked the earth Lao Tzu speaks of the “Myriad things” or “Ten-thousand things” while Solomon ridiculed the quest for all facts “everything under the sun is vanity.” The aim of their poetic philosophy is to uncover principle, not to catalog fact. They realized long before computers existed that nobody would ever be able to collect all facts in one place and that facts were, in fact, relatively superfluous to the discovery and illumination of truth.

The Listener hears stories constructed from Memory knowing that such stories are, as time goes on, scientifically unreliable in terms of factual reconstruction of events, but that the same Memory is remarkably reliable in its able to recall emotions experienced or established during an event. In my recollections of Congo/Zaire 27 years ago, my memory now has such a patina that you should not trust my memory to give you a perfect rendering of the facts. You should be able to trust that the patina on my memory will give you a very accurate rendition of how the events shaped my life. And that is the reality I now live.

Canonized books of story or poetry which have been used as factual sledgehammers cause us discomfort, but their original impact in society was due to their usefulness in the way their story elucidated truth regardless of factuality. The first question to ask when studying canonic texts is not “is this or that a fact?” but rather, “how does this story impact me emotionally? What true principles are here?” If the story should turn out to be factual as well, all the better.

The Listener reads fiction with abandon, uncovering truth wherever it may be found, and reads non-fiction with caution, recognizing that each fact stacked upon another fact could build a tower of Babel; that a large collection of facts twisted for the writer’s profit is less valuable than a single principle uncovering some absolute truth. And so, for example, the books of the Bible, if you take them to be fiction, read them with abandon, and if you read them as non-fiction, read them with caution. When you listen to a companion, encourage their wildest fantasies, let them ride unicorns to the ends of rainbows where they find pots of gold, and take their statements of fact (particularly when remembering facts of long ago) with a grain of salt.