From Tainted Memories... to Hope

by Michael Taylor

Your memory is more about your future than your past. This is one of the assertions that Curt Thompson makes in his book Anatomy of the Soul. He explains how our implicit memory affects how we interpret the present and drives our predictions of what is about to happen. I think that we often see what we expect to see, whether it is the truth or not. And, our predictions of the future can so easily become self fulfilling prophesies.

While I found this explanation of how implicit memory drives us, I found it difficult to understand the practical implications of this in Lisa's and my own journeys. However, I think God gave me a new piece of the puzzle.

Remembering is an active process

For what follows, it is important to understand that remembering is not a passive process. You do not simply walk into the static record archive of your mind and pull out the folder of data that you are looking for. Rather, remembering is an active process. When you remember an event, you strengthen that memory and you also change it. For better or worse, you cannot remember something without in some way affecting the memory. That is because remembering is as much about what is going on right now as it is about the past event.

In the bible, God tells us of the importance of being very intentional about the process of remembering. The Israelites were given instructions to remember his commandments and to keep them on their hearts (Deut 6:6-9). We are reminded "be careful that you do not forget the Lord who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery" (Deut 6:10).

Tainted Memories

Those who have experienced sexual betrayal will understand intimately how such betrayal can taint every memory of time spent together. Happy memories are transformed into painful memories as they are connected to the hidden acting out behaviours that were going on in parallel. Partners are left wondering what, if anything, was real. The process of coming to terms with betrayal involves reprocessing all of the memories collected during that season of betrayal and reprocessing them. This act changes all of those memories, colouring them with the revelation of betrayal.

For the addict, the memories were already tainted with some level of shame. The recovery process can exacerbate that as one looks back at oneself in a more accurate light. When I looked back at who I was, I realized that I did not like that person. In fact, at times I hate that person and the consequences that he has brought on my wife, myself and my children.

So, in the wake of betrayal, our memories that should be beautiful change and become dark and painful.

Tainted Predictions

So, if our memories are tainted, what future do we predict? Partners will naturally predict more of the same betrayal and/or more of the same the unhealthy relational and emotional patterns that have characterised their marriage. I often hear men who are beginning to break free of sexual addiction complain that their wives cannot see their progress and how they have changed. Those wives are simply living out of their newly modified memories. When they see any hint of the old destructive patterns in their husbands, their memories scream a warning about a dire future. Trauma amplifies this natural process. These predictions of the future can drown out the present.

Likewise, the addict will suffer from their own distorted predictions of the future. It is very easy to let our memories predict a future of failure and disappointing those around us. Those predictions can too easily become self fulfilling. They can bind us to an old shame-based identity that we would be better to leave behind.

Restoring the Future

So, how do we move forward? Where is God in this process? If our memories predict our future, how do we let God redefine our memories?

For partners, the process of reclaiming tainted memories can look like inviting Jesus into those memories. We know He was there and that His is a faithful and untainted love. After time, the joy of those moments can become a new joy shared with a loving creator. And, in time, He can even reveal His compassion for the one who's sin removed your ability to enter into the blessing that could have been.

For those of us who have betrayed, we can invite Jesus into those damaged memories so that he can grieve with us and tell us of our true identities. But, we need to be intentional about choosing to let God rewrite those memories. If we are not intentional, we will fall back into the rut that takes us down the well-travelled road of shame. Forging new neural pathways takes energy. But, the living God is pursuing us with His gentle whisper. We can let His compassion and grace direct our thoughts to remembering His ways. I like what Gregory Boyle says about God, "Your ways are not our ways...but they sure could be."

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