Do We Remember The Event Or The Story?

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levi-quotePrimo Levi was a Holocaust survivor who spent the remainder of his life (1919-1987) trying to make sense of what happened in the German death camps. He explored his experiences in numerous works, including novels, short stories, essays, and memoirs. If this intrigues you at all, I would start with The Drowned And The Saved. It shouldn’t surprise you to learn that his books will break your heart. They are all brilliant, devastating, and can be intellectually dense at times (heavy on theory).

Levi spent a lot of time examining the fallibility of memory. He was concerned that the memory of what transpired in the camps would disappear or become corrupted to the point where the reality would eventually be lost. According to Levi, the survivors themselves might eventually become unreliable narrators. Why would it happen? How could this happen? How could a man who suffered the indescribable atrocities and agonies of Auschwitz worry about losing his memories of it?

We All Remember Things Differently

Some of the most rousing arguments I’ve had with family and friends center on events that we all remember “perfectly.” I nearly came to blows (not really) with my mother once over something that I “knew” she said, that she “knew” she had not. Which of us is right? Are we both wrong? How does this happen? I don’t know the answers to those questions–actually, I know the answer to the first one: she said it. But some of Levi’s theories might illuminate this a bit.

The Telephone Game, Expanded By Decades

Have you ever seen or read something you described as “unforgettable?” I certainly have. How many of those unforgettable instances are still crystal-clear?

chainBack to Levi’s concerns: he claimed that often what we remember is not the event itself, but the last time we told the story about that event. Think about that for a moment. We all know how stories can change over time. Remember the “telephone game?” A group of people sit in a circle or a line. The first person whispers a sentence into the ear of the next person. That person repeats it to the next in line. By the time it gets to the end of the chain, the sentence has usually changed, either because it was misheard or misspoken, or because some joker changed it on purpose.

Picture that chain of people stretching out over the years, or decades. The link grows with each repeating of the sentence (or story).

Stories Change: We Change Them

If you have never embellished a story, you’re a better human than I. People change things all the time based on the circumstances they’re in or who they are speaking with. You can tell the same story to an attractive person you’re desperate to impress, and again to your grandmother, with different motives for telling it. Not to mention different styles, gestures, words.

It’s just as natural to leave information out of stories. Most people want to be liked and need admiration and praise at some level. Altering stories, whether by ramping them up or leaving things out, is one way to win people over.

That Just Sounds Like Lying…

Perhaps. I’ll leave that up to each reader. Consider this: what reasons would Levi have to embellish his stories, if they were even capable of being embellished? What reason would he have for omitting certain details, since he dedicated his life to chronicling the horrors and serving as a living witness…just so nobody would forget? It doesn’t add up. Or, it doesn’t add up until you get deeper into Levi’s books.

We Don’t Necessarily Remember The Events Themselves

Some stories are so good that we tell them at every chance we get. Levi suggests that the constant retelling of a story is what keeps the “memories” fresh. An event isn’t unforgettable because of its traumatic or joyous nature: It’s unforgettable because it gets brought up so often.

So when you tell a story, your memory might not be of What Actually Happened, but of the last time you told the story. Subconsciously, you may not be thinking, “Is that how it happened?” but rather “Is that how this story goes?”

ouchIf you have ever been in severe physical pain, you never forget what caused it. I had the top layer of my eyeball slough off (long story) during a basketball game way back in High School. I’ve never felt pain like that again. I know that for a fact. But saying “that hurt SO bad” doesn’t mean I can feel it again. Pain comes and then pain goes. The story of what caused the pain is unforgettable: the pain itself is impossible to remember because I’m no longer experiencing it. I have too many other aches on my mind right now.

What is the point of all this?

Only that memory and motivations can be slippery and are worth examining. I’ve been proven wrong often enough that I can’t be positive that certain memories of mine are accurate. And I love to tell a good story, so I always try to ask myself why I’m telling it when I start into one. It’s good to know your motivations for anything you do. It’s also not the most comfortable thing in the world. If you commit to examining yourself, you are bound to turn over some rocks you’ll wish you had left alone. But then you can fix them! Either that, or just ignore them:

Either way, you will learn something about yourself. Remember that.

And if you’re looking for more discussion, the question Why do we tell stories? is a good one.


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