Remember Just Enough - Part II
There are some things our brain does capture in high definition.
Unfortunately, they are the ones that hurt us.
Our brains are capable of high definition. It isn’t the camera; it is its settings. They are set to use that capability most for the things we’d like to remember least.
For all of of our love of the idea that we are a sophisticated, highly evolved species – a performance car, a Porsche - we are more like cars built on old design that hasn’t seen much of an update in millennia.
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Our bodies, brains, and systems, are all little changed in the past several thousand years. Our model was designed to keep our ancestors from un-aliving themselves in a dangerous world. Back then, the equivalent of Whole Foods was whatever bush seemed to have berries on it. And some of those berries could kill you. Choosing right kinda mattered.
Back then, there was a high evolutionary value in never letting someone forget the agony they felt after eating the wrong berries. So, our brains and systems evolved to be very good at remembering the very bad. That capability was essential once. It isn’t as essential today. There are no poison berries at the grocery store.
A high def memory for past poisonings isn’t as important today.
Not needing it anymore would be just fine if it merely went unused. It doesn’t. Instead, it records anything that hurts badly as if it were a poison berry.
And things in life hurt badly sometimes.
We lose jobs and friends and family members. Love sometimes fades. Relationships fail. We hurt. Sometimes intensely. We suffer traumas. Things that cannot be gotten over or even gotten past. And through all of them, our brains call upon its ‘danger mode’ to remember in high definition.
When I was in high school, I went to my first concert. INXS at Radio City Music Hall. I went with my friend Craig. We had terrible seats nearly in the last row of the first level. A seat behind us caught on fire during the show. Not smoking. In flames. That is literally all that I remember of the concert. I don’t remember how we got there or back. I remember nothing of the actual show. The seat that caught on fire... that I remember. That I can still picture.
A few years later, that same friend and I went out to lunch. It was my birthday (which puts this story in mid-August). The two of us went to Pizza Hut. We had a party to go to that night. It was a de facto dual birthday party for me and another friend. All of our other friends would be there. There would be ample drinks to consume and bad decisions to make. Kara’s parents wouldn’t be home so the party would probably go late. By the end, someone would probably be making out with someone. As one of the two birthday boys, I stood a better than normal chance of being at least one of those someones. That didn’t mean the chances were great, but the odds were at least slightly improved.
The point is: things boded well for Mike’s enjoyment of the evening. That is the point.
Sadly, that boding would never materialize.
Unbenownst to me, an evil force had already entered the scene:
That fucking Pizza Hut lunch, it was the devil’s pizza.
Rather than merely doing its simple job of filling our stomachs before the party, that pizza had instead enlisted its services directly to Satan. That is the only reasonable conclusion based on what was to occur. It had signed on to be an eight-car tram from the bowels of hell. A conveyance for a great and terrible poison of some kind.
Craig and I both came down with a case of food poisoning so severe, mine felt like my intestines were trying to tear their way out of the earthly prison of my abdomen. His was no better. I would not learn that, however, until the next day. The reason? His case had come on a few hours before mine when he was still home. My case only struck with its full vengeful ferocity… at Kara’s house… during the party.
Oh, how I wished to die on the floor of Kara’s parents’ bathroom that night. For a while, I thought I might get my wish. (I curse you, Pizza Hut. You know what you did. And oh <taps temple> I remember. Vividly.)
It felt like someone was tying my intestines in knots like they were prison bedsheets and then using them to scale down the wall in a doomed escape attempt.
The sharpness of that memory, that’s what ‘Pain Brain’ does. It remembers things that hurt.
It still has its purpose. It just isn’t calibrated well for life today. Humankind of 5,000 years ago didn’t have their hearts broken by not making the high school play; they had limbs ripped off by bears. They didn’t get stung by the end of a relationship; they got stung 1,000 times on their face by hornets they accidentally rousted from a rotting log.
Pain Brain is calibrated for risks to life and limb not threats to only our happiness.
We don’t encounter many “Which berry will kill me?” decisions. We encounter an endless number of choices which may result in other hurts – the kind we feel most on the inside. Emotional pain.
We face decisions of whether to speak up, to stand up for ourselves, to ask for something. We come face-to-face with the terror of loving and not knowing if we are loved back. We hold private our hopes in the fear they might be rejected – that we might be rejected – and then we sometimes expose them… and actually are rejected.
We face all kinds of situations with the potential for emotional pain – and when it occurs and is severe, our brains record it in sharp focus.
‘Pain Brain’ remembers.
And then, in its primitive efforts to protect us, our Pain Brains deliver a reminder of that past injury whenever something even vaguely similar draws near.
Had a terrible experience public speaking?
Pain Brain will absolutely remind you of it the next time you are headed toward a speech.
The prior experience hurt. Pain Brain is trying to help you to avoid it repeating.
The key word there is ‘avoid’. Pain Brain wants us to *avoid*.
‘Don’t risk the berries. Eat something else.’
‘Don’t step on that rotted log. Step over it.’
‘Don’t go to Pizza Hut in August on your birthday when Kara is having a party. Or, just to be on the safe side, don’t go to Pizza Hut ever again.’
Our primitive brains serve up reminders of things it wishes for us to fear for our own good.
And often, we listen. (I haven’t been back to Pizza Hut since.)
Unfortunately, because Pain Brain can’t discern terribly well, it sees little difference between berries and heartache. The same Pain Brain that doesn’t want me to go back to Pizza Hut thinks maybe I’d be better off staying single after how much it hurt to go through a divorce. I haven’t disagreed.
When you have been badly hurt in a relationship or relationships, Pain Brain wants to see that you aren’t again. It doesn’t necessarily push you toward avoiding all relationships categorically. But it absolutely implants a ‘Pizza Hut food poisoning the day of Kara’s party’ level aversion to things you see as the root of past injuries.
When you have had painful relationship experiences, after each one something gets added to a list. Deal-breakers. Red flags. Cautions. Can’t haves. Won’t do’s. They get red-lettered onto a list.
After dating, marriage, and divorce, I have my own list. The first person I dated seriously post-divorce had one too.
Mine at that point was a sort of loose penciling on the back of a receipt. “Poison Berries: Not nice to me; very yelly; wouldn’t wake me if there was a fire.”
Hers was more like a double-sided worksheet which she carried around on a clipboard at all times.
As background, she was a therapist. She had her own practice. She had divorced several years prior and had a daughter from that marriage who was a few years older than my son. She was a devoted mom. She was thoughtful and kind and sometimes made me pepperoni bread when she was making them for her family. There I was just-in-timing it to the grocery store for that night’s dinner while she was over there making superfluous gift breads with premeditation. Suffice it to say, we were not at all equal in the extent of our having our shit together.
How could we be?
I was ass-deep in chaos and instability and fighting a fucking tornado daily. I was juggling the turbulence of a pending divorce and the requirements of a full-time career all while having ample custody of my 3-year old son, etc.. My life was a running six-alarm shitshow – and I was trying to be in a relationship and a good partner on top of all that.
I was by no means in a place amenable to that.
My therapist girlfriend used to remind me of that frequently.
And I didn’t think she was wrong.
I thought she was “past me”. She was farther down a road I very much wanted to be farther down. I was, at the very best, a work in progress. She was a set of taillights down the road. I was trying to catch up. That is how I saw the two of us, where we each were.
It took me years past the end of that relationship for me to fully grasp where we each had really been at the time.
I was exactly as described above. At the startiest of starts. I was still face-to-the-wind in the hurricane, and it was nowhere close to past. Dating me was signing up for all that came with that. I was trying my best - but being at my best was still a good distance away. I knew that. She knew that.
She, on the other hand, was already well past her divorce and had already dated and been through other relationships. She was, in theory, in a far more stable place – and I suppose she truly was.
However, in that place, gripped tight in her hands was a long mental checklist of can’t’s, won’t’s, and uh-oh’s from past hurts – all of which had been recorded in the full blazing detail only Pain Brain can achieve.
She was hypervigilant. I was up to my ass in stress which I knew impacted me sometimes. She had me under a microscope, and I took that scrutiny as being *because of me* rather than because of experiences with people before me. And because I took it as caused by me, I saw it as fair. I accepted it.
That was wrong of me.
It was a mistake to see it that way. I did myself harm by doing so.
She wasn’t being reasonably cautious in response to a risk dating me posed. She wasn’t being additionally cautious because I was still so very much ‘in progress’. She was allowing her past to pollute her present. She had been through things before me. Her Pain Brain had recorded the full footage. And now it was serving up clips at the faintest of prompts.
She was holding me under an intense microscope because of what others had done, not done, done badly or done wrong.
It was asphyxiating. It extended me no grace, offered me no wiggle room, allowed me no room to be imperfect even briefly.
Eventually, it was the catalyst for the relationship ending.
Early on, I thought I was in love with her. By the end, I felt like I had been wrung out like a wet towel. The thing that took me from that early place to an exhausted surrender was the absolutely omnipresent remembering of her Pain Brain and its effect on her.
Our brains, our systems, they are such amazing things… but what they want most is for us to survive. Merely survive. Life, though… life is about so much more than just being alive. It is about living fully. Loving and being loved. Feeling joys and heartaches, hope and disappointment. It is about rejoicing in your triumphs and grieving your losses. It is about so much more than just surviving.
Pain Brain is about surviving… but what exists beyond that is thriving. To do that, we have to take some risks and face some potential hurt sometimes. We have to stand up to fear not shrink from exhilaration.
When you exit a long relationship that was painful, it feels like being left with a glass bottle half-filled with only something toxic. It feels like the bottle must first be emptied entirely of that dark liquid left in it before it can be filled again as if its contents are a poison that will taint anything added.
We have this learned idea that painful things must be ‘gotten over’ before they can be ‘gotten past’.
That isn’t how it works. That isn’t how our brains, our memories work. Our lives slide ever onwards no matter what we do. There is no orderly set of tracks, no clean depots awaiting our arrival. We don’t embark from Painful Loss-Breakup-Divorce Junction and then pull into Over It Station. We just roll on down the tracks, one turn of the wheels at a time no matter how slow, no matter how hard. Or we don’t.
It is not terrible to have a bottle not wholly emptied of past pains. We all carry some of that liquid in our bottles. We can never full empty it out. Our Pain Brains would never allow it. Our hardest things, the ones recorded most vividly, they will never fully forget themselves to us. We can’t make them.
There is no ‘getting over’, there is only ‘getting on with’.
We can never fully empty our bottles of past pain. What we can do is pull the stopper from the bottle and make fearless work of filling its free space to overflowing. We can fill the remaining reservoir with things that are good and healthy and fulfilling. Through that, the darkest liquids of our pasts are diluted. Not replaced but thinned. Diminished. Most importantly, they are kept from being the only wine we store.
Allow our Pain Brains to trap us in our worst vintage, we’ll never again know the taste of something better.
Our brains are working on behalf of our survival.
We have to work on behalf of our happiness.
Sometimes, that work is a letting go. An easing down of our guards. A suspension of the tight-gripped hypervigilance.
Sometimes it is just breathing our way through the terrifying twinges of Pain Brain remembering too much, too well...
We cannot make things forget themselves to us, but we can decide to not let ourselves be made so afraid by past pains that we rob ourselves of present joys.
Sometimes bravery is nothing more than a will stronger than memory.
Allow no past to steal your present.
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