The way we weren’t: memories create strange karma

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My Name is Earl’, a popular television show, explored how negative karma accrues from past bad behaviour.  Earl, the title character, makes a list of past mistakes and proceeds to correct them to attract positive karma. As he works his way through the list he apologies, forgives, repays, fixes and atones for mistakes. However, his memories often conflict with the recollections of others, leading to comical situations as Earl’s redemptive attempts create additional problems.

What is striking about ‘My Name is Earl‘ (in addition to its premise of karmic manipulation) is that our memories are often inaccurate. Recent brain research concludes that  our memories are distorted recreations of reality and not to be trusted. The brain doesn’t store memories which means each time we think of the past, our brain has to recreate the memory. As time passes these memories become more fragmented and less reliable. The brain has to literally make the memory, just like baking a cake with an inconsistent oven temperature and ingredients that alter slightly over time. This is both an exciting and frightening concept which has repercussions throughout our life.

Take my high school friend Sonya. Whilst we weren’t close friends (she was a friend of my best friend) we knew each others’ families and spent time together at school. About 15 years ago she tracked me down (this is in the days before social media made it easier to find anyone). She said she really needed to see me and she drove from her country property with a toddler in tow (a six hour round trip). After we exchanged pleasantries she said she wanted to apologise for something she’d said shortly after my brother died. I didn’t know what she was talking about. She explained that we had been sitting in the kitchen when she made a joke about him. She said I’d looked at her coldly and told her that it wasn’t funny. She had never forgotten my reaction and felt guilty about it for all these years.

I told her that I didn’t even remember the incident. Besides, tragedy and grief are not something 17 year olds could be expected to deal with sensitively or with maturity.  I said I was sorry she had been haunted all these years and was grateful for the apology.  Sonya perked up and after another hour she departed – the weight lifted off her shoulders. I haven’t seen her since.

I sometimes think about Sonya’s distress when I read about how the brain processes reality. Guilt is a powerful motivator. Past misdeeds make us dwell upon the people we’ve hurt.  Our feelings can distort thinking and in turn create anxiety or neurosis. Yet our recollection of events, as research shows, may not even be accurate. We may be worrying about nothing.

I’m pleased that people like Sonya and the fictional Earl have the courage to address their past errors. We all make mistakes but how much should we castigate ourselves over them?  Most of us don’t mean to hurt people intentionally, it just happens. Throughout life we will have a positive, negative or neutral effect  upon those we meet. The karma we build from these encounters should balance out. Given that our memories are faulty it is more beneficial to concentrate on our present behaviour and leave the past well and truly behind.

Sue Bell

Sue Bell is an entertainment writer and author of Backpacked: A mostly true story, Beat Street and When Dreamworks came to Stanley.

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