Selective Memory

Today I was listening to NPR (I’m one of those people) as I drove to a Bible study. An exchange between a host and guest made me think. I do not recall the exact words that were spoken, so I will take the liberty of paraphrasing the comments. 

The guest was Robert S. McElvaine, and he has a pretty impressive title: The Elizabeth Chisholm Professor of Arts and Letters and Chair of the Department of History at Millsaps College (Jackson, Mississippi). He is the author of the book Down and Out in the Great Depression: Letters from the “Forgotten Man,” which was the topic being discussed on the radio. The book is a collection of letters that were sent to the First Family during the Great Depression.

As the host of the show read a few letters written by children to the President during the Great Depression, she remarked on the honesty and desperation they contained. She asked if the letters written by children were the truest representation of the suffering and difficulties of that era.

MaElvaine did not feel this was the case. He said that even the adults were honest and desperate. The letters capture the moment. The letters were the truest representations of the era. And this is what made me really think.

McElvaine said that when most people orally relate difficult times in the past they tend to distort things a little. In the retelling more dignity and confidence is present. Sure, tales of difficult times are told, but the uncertainty and fear present in the situation is reduced.

The letters capture that fear and uncertainty.

When I think of difficult times I have had, and my difficulties do not even deserve to be called difficulties compared to the Great Depression, I think of how differently I view the situation after it has passed. It’s sort of like seeing a movie the first time versus seeing it again. The first time there is uncertainty and tension. Every time after that the outcome is known, so the feelings are not as sharp (a point similar to this was raised by my friend Adam recently after watching Memento).

In retelling there is a certain fondness for the endurance and perseverance the situation caused. Lessons that were learned often overshadow the pain. Times of stress are forgotten.

I suspect this is how I will remember grad school. The nights (and mornings) I wrestle with insomnia and research uncertainties will draw a smile. While now the fear of failure is very real, in the future my recollections of self-confidence will grow and nary a hint of vulnerability will be left.

Maybe a I need to write myself a letter.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Selective Memory

  1. Rebecca

    I’ve recently been reading about the formative affects of economic crisis on young psyches: how does the outcome differ from endured crisis in general? why do individuals react so differently? how do I percieve the change in myself, as a young psyche?

    A rather intriguing study, all things considered.

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