Do our memories define us? Remembering my father

My father was a war hero and a concentration camp intern. While still a teenager, he was a freedom fighter in the French Resistance; but was caught by the Nazis and sent to Buchenwald for two years. When he emerged at the end of the war, he was a broken and sick young man, unable to talk. Yet, he did not give up. And, although he improved physically, he remained deeply emotionally injured. Being unable to talk easily, he took mime and acting classes in the hope that the arts would help him regain his speech. And it did. He became a fine actor.

When he met and married my mother, it seemed on the surface that all was better; but with the stress of a family to care for, it became obvious that he still was not emotionally well. He left us in England when I was a baby, returning to France to continue his acting career. And though we visited my grandmother (his mother) regularly in Paris, he never came to visit, except once.

I was fourteen at the time. He walked through the door of her apartment, and I thought it the happiest day ever. We spent four glorious hours together, and I remember each moment to this day. We laughed and talked. He taught me how to mime and to do a version of the moonwalk — long before Michael Jackson perfected his. He brought me a beautiful doll from the Ukraine. I thought it would always be this way as he told me how much he cared for me and how we would meet again soon. And then he left, walking out into the evening sunshine in Paris. I never saw him again.

The reason I share this story is because it has taught me a lot about whether or not memories — the past — have the power to control our future. Many of us today believe our past experiences — which are based on our memories — are permanent and have the power to shape our future. From Sigmund Freud, who taught the theory of repressed memory, to more modern theories about where memories reside in the brain, the question remains: do we have control over our memories and their impact on our futures? My experience is that how we identify ourselves is a key point to finding freedom from painful memories and burdened futures.

According to a recent study, up to 83% of us believe that our memories are accurate, but actually that may not be always true. One study, published in Live Science, points to some very different ideas regarding memory. About 48% of people in the study asserted that their memory didn’t change over time; whereas, research found that actually it did. And, further, it found that subtle changes do occur, that over time can alter our life story significantly.

This research set me to wondering. Does this mean we can consciously alter our life story by reframing our identity? My experience tells me we can, and that we don’t need to let past experiences define us.

Initially, dealing with the deep disappointment of realizing I would probably never see my father again was profoundly painful. As any teen would, I thought it was my fault — that I was not pretty enough, talented enough, smart enough. Feelings of rejection crowded in, and with them came health issues and anxiety. However, as I matured I began to see that I needed to decide whether to allow my memories to take control of my identity and future experiences, and thus negatively impact my mental and physical health.

One of the individuals that inspired me as a young woman was Viktor Frankl, an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist, and a holocaust survivor. He said:

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

For me, that “space” was a path to freedom. That space allowed me to choose how I responded to and remembered our family history and my identity. My mother and I talked frequently about the importance of refusing to be a victim or a survivor. One of the most profound healings of Jesus indicates how he saw identity. Instead of seeing a woman who came to him as unclean, he called her “daughter.” This indicated to me the profound idea that our identity is spiritual. I glimpsed that our history has a spiritual origin that is far more important than the human stories we allow to define us. Redefining my identity as the daughter of God, who is love, was incredibly healing and freeing.

Over time, I also made sure that the things I chose to remember about my childhood were worthy of my attention. My mother and I came to see past hardships with a great deal of laughter. We came through it all, and we have not passed that suffering on to the next generation. That does not mean we have had a life without challenges and sadness. But the day-to-day gratitude, as a conscious remembering and celebrating of good, has given us a sense of confidence that leads to feeling more secure in life and in our mental and physical health.

It’s important to honour those who experienced the holocaust, but it can also bring to our minds the deeper needs of a modern world that is yearning for a new identity that includes healing from pain and tragedy and that brings peace and a healthier way to live.

I eventually searched for and finally reconnected with my father after 45 years of separation. He was living in France — a successful and busy actor who continually traversed Europe with his one-man plays and creative works. Though we never actually met again, and communication was difficult because of language, we corresponded. Getting to know him again was one of the most profound experiences of my life; and finding he was well, one of the happiest. Though we took different paths, we found that we were both free from the idea that sad and painful memories could shape our future.