Remembering Un-Memories

A couple years ago at a dinner party one of the guests told a story about an absurd exchange his wife had at the hospital. Seems as she was being wheeled in for surgery someone else was being wheeled out, someone she knew, and as the two gurneys passed each other the prone patients high-fived. Not in a coordinated maneuver, or a planned exchange. No words needed to go with it, they just gave each other a pre/post-surgical high five and were wheeled past, leaving a stunned husband in the wake.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover at the dinner party that I was the other patient. I can’t remember what surgery this was, or if I got the roles reversed and she was going in as I was going out, and I don’t remember high-fiving anyone at all, anesthesia is a hell of a drug, but this is one of my favorite anecdotal stories about myself.

Out there in the world people have memories of you that you don’t have. People know things about your sleeping habits you could never know. And you’ve made impressions that have long outlasted your intentions or thoughts in the moment.

What the missing high five tells me is that I’m coordinated when I’m under heavy medication and not overthinking things. A lot of over-thinkers are like this. I’ve got a family member with incredible reflexes — as long as he’s had a couple beers.

But the more important revelation is that even the things I’ve forgotten, or the things I’ve been too drugged to remember, are indications that I’m me all the time. What I mean by that is when you spend so much of your time overthinking your conversation and actions, wondering what people will think, those conversations you can’t remember, or when you act on impulse and instinct without analyzing it, it’s nice to know that if I let myself off the leash I’ll do something in character.

We do more stuff unconsciously than I think we realize, too. We can’t account for every moment in the day, and those blank moments can haunt us. What are the stories people tell when I’m not around? Are the lingering impressions of me embarrassing? Horrifying? Wildly inaccurate? Do people replay the same stories to their friends that my devilish imagination plays for me on repeat as I cringe?

Un-memories are telling. They tell the story of the person you are, not the one you wish to be. Of the interpretation of your actions — for good or bad. They don’t have the context of “I was sick that day” or “I’d just gotten great news”, they’re just actions with limited context, and for that reason alone they tell a much bigger story. Because people put you into THEIR context. Their experience with you prior to this frames it. So when you hear one little story, what you’re hearing is the tip of a similar iceberg. These memories explain you to you.

It’s terrifying, isn’t it? The stories people have that you don’t know about could be absolutely horrible, couldn’t they? Or embarrassing maybe? Or what if they’re great? Maybe they’re those moments when you were generous and thoughtful even when you thought no one was looking. Trick is, to get one of those special un-memories you have to put in a lot of work, because a lot of what we do does go unseen.

To be the person you want others to think you are you have to be that person all the time. It’s the un-memories that tell others and eventually us that people know the difference between who we really are and who we’d rather be.

Now’s a good time to start being the you that you actually want to be.


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