Memories and Meaning

1909 Victor Flash Lamp - Memories and Meaning

Every semester, when I teach Introduction to Psychology, I ask my students to apply what they have learned in the chapter on memory by writing about a flashbulb memory. A flashbulb memory is a vivid, detailed personal memory that an individual perceives as highly accurate. The usual examples given are memories of where a person was and what you they doing when they heard about 9/11 or for older generations, the assassination of JFK.

Here I am, teaching Intro to Psychology for the summer, and the flashbulb memory assignment has rolled around again. As always, I am struck by the intense, and oftentimes, sad and tragic memories that these young people describe. It amazes me that they are willing to disclose such personal memories to me for an assignment. Over the years, it has become clear that the majority of students recall a sad memory more often than a happy one, at a rate of about 6 to 1. Evolutionary psychologists attribute this to survival—if we have accurate memories of bad events, we are less likely to repeat them. Sort of like getting food poisoning from a restaurant and avoiding that restaurant after the incident.

The problem with this tactic is that for these young people, the events that they recall are usually happening to them, or in their presence, and are not situations in which they have direct control. Memories range from car accidents, to shootings at a party, to the loss of a loved one. For the summer term, students are recalling events as diverse as being mauled by a dog, arriving for their first day of college, and winning a pageant.

However, it is the memories that imbue a deep sense of loss that haunt me for days after I have read and graded the assignment. I still cannot forget one girl who, years ago, wrote about getting pregnant at the age of 12, and her boyfriend punching her in the stomach, causing her to miscarry. I am only halfway through reading the current batch of summer assignments, and many of their experiences already horrify me. These memories include a young girl trying to hold it together when a mother announces her second divorce, and writing that she remembers actually feeling relieved because then her mom would not have to take care of six kids and a man who didn’t help out.

One male student writes about being packed up at the age of 10 and told that they were going to visit Grandma in South Carolina. It is only weeks later that he realizes the visit is a permanent move and years before he understands that the move was to get away from his father, whom he did not see for another seven years. The last memory I read was of a girl who was sexually assaulted by her uncle on the first Friday of fifth grade.

These memories are horrible, painful events that I wish my students never had to experience. The astounding thing is that despite these experiences, despite the trauma and the loss of innocence, these young people are in college. They are persevering and carrying on. In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl wrote, “Everything can be taken away from a man but one thing—the last of all human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Some of my students have horrible things happen to them, such as getting shot, or feeling stigmatized for being gay, or losing a parent, or the examples given above. It is the attitudes they choose in facing these circumstances that continuously determine whether they move forward and grow, or become mired in self-pity.

This reminds me of another line from Frankl’s book, when he states: “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” It is the attitude that we choose every day that determines how much we are able to grow as human beings and move toward our highest potential. The young woman who was sexually assaulted will never forget, in her own words “what he had on, what I had on, and what was on television,” but she has made a choice to not allow this life changing event that happened to her, define her as a person, or shape her future.

My students reminded me once again, as I was feeling pity for myself for being a busy working mom with three young kids, that it is our attitude that will determine in the end, whether I perceive today as a great day or a horrible day. I think we all need to be reminded to find meaning not only in our successes but also in our losses, in our triumphs, and most importantly in our tragedies. It is easy to get caught up in the daily hassles of work, and money and raising kids, and forget that ultimately we must find meaning in the most challenging experiences of our existence.

Frankl, V. (1975). Man’s search for meaning. New York: Pocket Books.

— Anisah Bagasra

Today’s guest contributor, Anisah Bagasra, PhD, is an assistant professor of psychology at Claflin University in Orangeburg, SC, who specializes in research with the Muslim American community.

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