As I Age . . . Thoughts on Memory and Cosmos
TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 8 Sep 2014
For of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: ‘It might have been!’ — John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892)
“If Only . . .”
Weeks ago, I spoke with a friend of many years. Typically, we remain in close contact, exchanging emails, and phone calls on a regular basis. However, I noticed he had stopped our contacts. My efforts to reach him went unanswered. Finally, I phoned, and spoke with his wife. I asked how he was; I told her I missed him. She said he had not been well; she stated he seemed “depressed.” Later, prompted by his wife, he phoned me, and, as she said, he told me he had been feeling “depressed.” He added as he approached 80 years of age, he was filled with thoughts of regret, and his inevitable passing. “There were,” he said, “so many things I wish I would have done; so many things I wish I would not have done.” “For of all sad words of tongue or pen . . . .”
“Aye, that’s the rub!” Shakespeare wrote! I suspect all ageing people feel this way. There is an inclination as we age to recall and relive “If only …” memories. This is, in many ways, an effort to make sense of events in our lives — what we perceive occurred and has not occurred. I once wrote some brief lines: “If: A two-letter word, simple in sound, profound in consequence.”
The reality is the omnipresence of memories — as we recall them, as wish to recall them, and as we wish to forget them. Memories are always present — waiting to be released. And with each memory, comes an endless flow of associations. Memories work their way to the surface — the immediacy of the present moment. They are sources of joy, and sources of grief, sources of insight, and sources of regret and resentment. They are also sources shaping our future – sources for understanding of who we are becoming.
Ageing, Reflection, Recall: An Evolutionary Process
As I age, I find my thoughts returning to the days of my youth — to accumulated memories of people, places, and events once stored unobtrusively in my brain — now awaiting chances to be revived, considered, and to order my life – to bring past, present, and future together.
I believe pre-occupation with my past is not a chance event. Rather, I think ageing is compelling me to examine who I am today, by ordering my past in an endless process of recall, reconsideration, recovery – and re-evaluation. The process of recalling and ordering past, present, and future is bewildering and exhilarating — it is also exhausting.
Memories flow into one another with a rhyme and reason known to their sources, often oblivious to my efforts to assign order to their existence. The memories have connections I never imagined. I search for the “mystery” of their attachments and associations – the possibilities – even as I remain hesitant to accept linkages across time and place. In my search, I recognize there is a need for “abductive” reasoning. There may be a necessary chain of cause and association; but this does not mean the cause and association are sufficient. Care is needed in the journey unlocking mind — Ahhh, the pleasures and demons of inquiry.
I may begin with recalling an image of a person’s face from my past, but soon I am flooded with chains of associations — distant in time, place, and consequence, relevant, it seems to me to the very moment of my initial recall. Time is compressed, time is repressed, time unfolds, time is transcended. The free-association methods of psychoanalysis, proposed by Sigmund Freud and others, are a therapeutic method for exploring an analysand’s past. Of course, the cost is far less if you do it yourself, although care must be taken as the natural inclinations to repress, deny, and deceive must be mediated.
As I reflect on my memories, I wonder if I am engaging in a natural and essential evolutionary process — a process driven by impulses to make sense – to make meaning of the life’s unfolding flow. Birth, life, death! A straightforward flow! But along the way, of course, there are inordinate experiences accumulating – exacting tolls, and offering opportunities for discovering and fixing identity, and for making meaning of existence. Hhhhmmmm?
This memory inquiry process in ageing is challenging — filled with discomforts and inevitable regrets. I cannot change nor reverse so much of what has occurred. How do you teach youth – still unfettered with regrets – to make good choices? Can they ever grasp that one day they or others will open an account ledger. “Oh my God, did I say that? Did I do that? What was I thinking of at the time?” I am shocked as I hear my words.”
What of permanent memories? What of permanent regrets? Am I to remain captive? If acts I regret are of such violation and destruction, then repentance challenges my mind, body, and spirit. This is the tragedy of war — the permanence of traumatic memories resisting forgiveness – festering – begging for release from an imprint – a deep engram — that may never be erased. For the person without conscience, memories may be of no consequence. Here the only issue, is whether conscience can be born, recovered, renewed? But for most of humanity, the issue of negotiating regrets is omnipresent.
Memories – Then and Now
Now as I enter the autumn of my years, I am drawn to the process of recall and response each day. I understand the value of focusing on the moment, but my memories refuse to be denied, entering and coloring my life each moment, regardless of the daily tasks before me. More and more, I recognize the entry of memories is not an intrusion, but rather a process enriching my life by inviting me to give context to who I am at this point in my ageing life. Is the very awareness of my future — the inevitable – encouraging me to reflect – to make sense – if possible — of inevitable mortality amidst and awareness of consciousness, choice, and moral and virtuous satisfaction,
Initially, I was perplexed by the constant return of memories, each memory demanding re-consideration at “unexpected” moments – memories seeking a new place, position, and importance in my being – a reconstruction of being – a renewal – but not necessarily one of comfort and gratification. I concluded there was an effort-after- meaning — an effort to make sense of purpose-identity-causality connections. Who am I? Who have I been? Who am I becoming? The process compels me to ask again and again — basic existential questions – finding contentment, only to become disquieted – a cycle.
I ask myself whether my identity should now stable and stronger — no longer subject to the doubts, uncertainties, and angst of adolescent years. Perhaps, however, it is better to grasp purpose/identity are life-long quests? Purpose/identity is not limited to certain ages or stages. I am pressed — pushed and pulled — to reflect on myself as a continuing effort after purpose/identity, and with them, the related sense of “fulfillment” or “satisfaction” with the opportunity to seek answers, pose questions, and doubt — endlessly. Ahhh the beauty of abduction reasoning and thought –comfort with doubt — resisting comforts of certainty too often subject to self-deceit and imposed authorities.
The Nuances and Consequences of Convention
Perhaps memory intrusions are reminders to pursue reconciliation of past and present, to negotiate fact and fiction, to grasp the merging of reality and fantasy, and to better understand being and becoming – and all at a precise important moment – a convergence of identity, time, and place. Much of this process, as I wrote at the beginning of this commentary, involves the word “If.”
“If only” . . . “If only” . . . the desire to erase past regrets is endless, but the reality of their existence is not – it is there, and it can only be negotiated by acceptance, forgiveness, or invoking some rationalization the dulls its presence. Unless it is truly an unforgivable event or occurrence, we are offered an opportunity to place it in our present context. There is something wonderful about ageing that enables an understanding of why things were done. I am fond of the phrase that is popular at this moment: “Life is difficult for everyone! Be kind!” We are caught in an ocean of laws, rules, retributions, regulations, morals, commandments, admonishments, and expectations. “Conscience doeth make cowards of us all!” wrote William Shakespeare in the 16th Century.
Sigmund Freud understood conscience in the same way when he wrote his brilliant volume, Civilization and its Discontents, in the early 20Th Century. He did so as unrelenting Victorian morals of the day imposed repressions upon natural urges and impulses. Freud captured the dilemma of life in his tripartite personality structure – Id, Ego, Superego. We know, of course, there is a gap between articulated morals and reality. Life in society requires acceptance and conformity to the norms and convention. Violate them, and there are consequences! Sometimes, the harshest consequences come from within our own mind – conscience (i.e., superego) — as reveries of the past bring forth a tide of things we wish we would not have said or done.
It took me years to grasp how harsh society’s dictums and proprieties can be upon the human mind — demanding more than we are capable of following. Guilt, shame, self-blame and condemnation occur reflexively. We fall before the dictums and proprieties recalled as we age. Amid tired and weary minds, we seek forgiveness, and ask release from a harsh penance. I had to learn the wisdom of selective detachment! I also had to learn that there are selective ways to critique and evaluate society, not only for my preferences, but to encourage others to explore their lives amidst society’s accepted conventions.
I am not a man caught in depression, despair, or melancholy. Indeed, quite the opposite. I find myself at this very moment in time, more alert and conscious of the complexities of life — personal life, collective life, and natural life – than at any prior time in my life. History is our story! History is my story! It can be read and understood, if one chooses, as the narrative of a species “pushed” and “pulled” by forces inherent in human evolution and in cosmic creation. That is the mystery!
Life unfolds before us! Choices are made! How little prepared we are for the delicate balancing act we face each day. Life can be read and understood as the narrative of an individual mind and body caught in the flow of life, conscious of choice, but limited by frailties and strengths of the moment. Choices are a function of freedom! Freedom, too often, is a function of roles and statuses: Men have more choices than women; the rich have more choices than the poor; educated people have more choices than uneducated people; whites have more choices than people of color!
In the present moments of my existence, I probe my mind, recalling events and people from my past – an array of images and feelings, vague and clear, clouded and transparent, misty and vibrant. All documenting my life! The accumulation is my story! I try to attach meaning — to cast my memories within a rationale appropriate to their time, and also to this moment. It is an effort after meaning – it is making meaning – it is a process which seals time and experiences, rendering judgment and evaluation. How much can deny? How much can I change? How much can I accept? Life is difficult! “Forgive and forget?” Or: “Try to forget, and try to forgive?” Or: “Forgive and remember?” Or: “Whatever . . . .? Memories! They are key!
Some Closing Thoughts
What can I say? I say we should consider life a privilege. It is better to be alive — to have experienced life, even with its trials and tribulations. Groucho Marx, the sagacious comedian, one said: “Do you think life is hard? Try the opposite!” Some people do, and at some point we all do! We are, as human beings, unique — a one-time miracle, accumulating experience — learning, changing, adjusting, and adapting.
We are capable of regretting, and yet renewing by forgiving ourselves and others. The word “If,” as I wrote at the beginning of this commentary, has the power to bring much regret into our lives. But regret can also be an opportunity to forgive oneself, and to forgive others, and in doing so, to grasp life is about renewal and resurrection each day. Life is about pursuing understanding of the larger order of things, and positioning ourselves in this timeless flow that began not just with our conception and birth, but with the very moment our universe was “born!” In a time beyond our comprehension, from a compressed energy-matter particle came an explosion still echoing across time and space, still part of this unfolding of life as fission and fusion.
We are gifted with life, not as a chance event, but as a part of a larger unfolding or evolution of the cosmos itself. We are part of the very force that animates the universe. On a star-filled evening on the shores of the Pacific Ocean, I gazed at the heavens. I was lost in their endlessness – their infinity. But . . . I was aware and attentive to the experience! I beheld the glory — conscious of the grandeur and the splendor. I was filled with awe and reverence as I grasped the wonder – even as I was aware I was but a speck amidst infinity! I was a “conscious” speck! In that moment, the cosmic complexity of life was revealed to me — the connection among all things! The “order” and “chaos” were unfolding mysteries beyond my comprehension, but not my awareness. Amidst my limited knowledge, I imagined an unfolding cosmic equation descended and ascended in a whirling moment upon and from me.
Cosmic creation — fission and fusion — separation and connection — diversity and unity — consciousness and choice — morality and virtue — belief and doubt — being and becoming — life/death — — transcendence . . .
From an infinitely compressed particle of matter and energy — a particle of unknown origin – created itself in a cauldron of forces/matter exceeding comprehension — exploded a force of infinite power of matter/energy into endless forms, patterns, existences capable of substituting — interchanging – interacting – with each other in a cosmic-dance amidst shifting masks — one cosmic moment: mass – one cosmic moment: energy – visible/invisible. All of this an endless process — unfolding toward . . . ?
Can I know? Should I know? Does GOD know? I recall the words from the creation hymn of the timeless Rgveda:
Not non-existent was it, nor existent was it at
that time; there was not atmosphere, nor the
heavens which are beyond.
What existed? Where? In whose care?
Water was it? An abyss . . . unfathomable?
Who after all knows?
Who here will declare from whence it arose,
Whence this world?
Subsequent are the gods to the creation of this world.
Who then, knows when it came into being?
This world-whence it came into being,
Whether it was made or whether not –
He who is its overseer in the highest heavens,
Surely knows–or perhaps he knows not.
Creation Hymn: X. 129
Selections from the Rgveda
(In Maurer, 1986, p. 285)
In that precious moment I stood alone on a star-filled evening, I was not alone! And now, in this moment, I know I am part and whole! Acceptance of part and whole means connection – connection among all things, connection between self and others, connection across time and place, connection with past present and future. Regrets! Yes! But how can I dismiss the incomprehensible – yet comprehensible understanding of fission and fusion — in all moments, in all places, in all times?
I imagine all matter and energy from the moment of creation – from the God Particles — Higgs-Boson discoveries — to the most massive matter and energy instances — caught — by intention and purpose — in “nano”moments of time – in constant and simultaneous interaction — each moment yielding a new equation – an unfolding equation, driven by the past, and pulled by the future – I swim now in thoughts of disproportion eluding my understanding – yet urging me to continue. Life and death are not separate mysteries. There is only mystery – life/death!
While we know not what may transpire in death — a release of energy, a transformation of energy, a continuation of consciousness, an ascent for the virtuous, we do know in our moments of existence the birth- life-death cycle, there is an effort after meaning – an effort or make sense of it all – an inquiry into identity, meaning, purpose. For this process to unfold, exploring memories in ageing — indeed, at all ages – enriches life. It adds depth, substance, and liberation.
It is this archetypal? Is this inherent in each of my cells? Is this inherent in all cells? Is this it a cosmic code — a union of unfolding life/death in a continual existence? Is this what we call GOD? Is this what we call incarnation? I don’t know! I can live with that – – I can die with that!
Marsella, A.J. (1999). In search of meaning: Some thoughts on belief, doubt, and wellbeing. The International Journal of Transpersonal Studies, 18, 41-52. .
Marsella, A.J. (2013). As I Age. Posted: 09/09/2013 5:00 pm. Huntington Post Hawaii.
Mauer, W. (1986). Pinnacles of India’s past: Selections from the Rgveda. Philadelphia, PA: John Benjamins Publishing.
Anthony Marsella, Ph.D., a member of the TRANSCEND Network, is a past president of Psychologists for Social Responsibility, emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii, and past director of the World Health Organization Psychiatric Research Center in Honolulu. He is known nationally and internationally as a pioneer figure in the study of culture and psychopathology who challenged the ethnocentrism and racial biases of many assumptions, theories, and practices in psychology and psychiatry. In more recent years, he has been writing and lecturing on peace and social justice. He has published 15 edited books, and more than 250 articles, chapters, book reviews, and popular pieces. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 8 Sep 2014.
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