Recently, I learned that the brain stores images individually packaged in emotions. You will need a neuroscientist to explain to you how, but my own experience is consistent with this notion that each mental image, each past experience visually captured in the brain, is connected to the attendant feelings experienced when it happened. Thus, when we recall something for which we have a visual picture in our mind, it comes forward with attached feelings. When we remember a person or event or place, it renews or awakens those emotions the brain has associated with it.
I can’t recall my late father, for example, without feeling grief and longing, even now at 36 years since his death. I don’t think of my childhood home without feelings of security and comfort, my wife and children without devotion, or people I have hurt without shame and regret. It is as if the recalled image, as it comes into focus, releases the feelings with which it was originally packaged.
Sometimes, when a companion asks if we remember something, our eagerness to embrace it is startling. Other times our immediate response is “Don’t go there!” Since we already know what happened, it is not the result that we resist recalling, but the feelings that we know will accompany it, not the event itself whose recollection we resist, but the emotions associated with it. On the other hand, some very disappointing experiences we are willing to revisit because of the appreciation or solace or comfort that resulted, in which our brains have wrapped their memory for storage.
Of course, life experiences most often produce a variety of feelings, some of them even conflicting. Blessings can be mixed and disappointments can have silver linings. Satisfying accomplishments can carry with them elements of sacrifice and loss, and failures can lead to unexpected benefits and new possibilities. The recollection of those feelings, especially the negative or painful ones, we sometimes describe as emotional baggage, which may or may not warrant unpacking and addressing in a particular way.
During these winter months, my mother has been going through decades’ worth of photographs, separating them into boxes destined either for her to keep or to give to me and my four sisters. When I visit her, she has begun giving me some of those she intends for me to have, and seeing them awakens mental images of the people, places, times, and events they represent. Often, I need her help in placing them, navigating my memory to locate them chronologically and geographically. Always, I am struck by how strong and wide-ranging are the feelings that come flooding forward with the reminiscences the photos evoke, or more simply put, how immediate are the emotions connected to them. The emotions do not feel like memories.
All of this has led me to wonder about how we process events in the present and how our spiritual disciplines might inform the packaging with which the brain stores and integrates them for future use. Could it be that whether we remember a painful experience years later with greater dread or greater appreciation may have something to do with the spiritual disciplines of confession, acceptance, humility, or gratitude with which we process it at the time? Might the way we pray for and about the people, events, and experiences of our lives inform how they are categorized for recollection by our brains, and in turn, how they form our character, personality, and spirit?
I have long felt that seeking some degree of gratitude for every person and experience I encounter has a direct effect on how I both remember the past and face the future. The “attitude of gratitude” about which 12-step recovery speaks is neither a sugarcoating of the challenges and challenging people life presents us with, nor an invitation to live in a more palatable fantasy of denial. It is, rather, a rigorous discipline that challenges one to see more deeply into oneself and the context in which one lives, that opens one’s eyes and heart to potential beyond the obvious. One spiritual practice that can assist in developing a grateful perspective is the daily Examen. An Ignatian discipline often practiced both at noon and at the end of the day, it provides time for review of our immediate lives and reflection on God’s presence therein. It is, to my mind, a prayer of observing, one that can lead to a wide variety of revelation and response, perhaps the most helpful being gratitude.
I wonder whether, through intentional and reflective disciplines of gratitude, it is possible to clothe our experiences, and thus our memories of them, in emotions of thanksgiving that might form our spirits long after the event itself has passed. Could attention to our appreciation for life events, small and large alike, inspire in us some sort of anticipatory gratitude as we go about our day to day lives? Such a piety of gratitude might make a good discipline for Lent or any season.
The people I have most admired in my life have this common attribute, they seem to approach even the most difficult challenges with an eye attuned to the good in others and a heart open to the possibility of unexpected goodness. Indeed, they seem to live in anticipation of the next thing for which they will be grateful.
The Rt. Rev. Mark Hollingsworth, Jr.
Bishop of Ohio