I have always been proud of my excellent memory. I can tell you exactly what people said, what they wore, how they behaved, from years back. No one queries it, which is how I know I’m right.
I am staying in the apartment in Aix en Provence that I first visited as a fifteen year old. It’s not unusual to visit places you came to as a child, often you visit periodically over your life. I guess it’s slightly less usual to have had a forty year gap.
Several things have struck me. First, I’d not have recognised it, in a million years. I didn’t remember where it was in the town, the colour, size or shape of the building. The family owned (and still does) two apartments in the same block and I could have sworn (did in fact swear) that the upper one was across the way rather than directly above. Wrong. I also was sure that the bathroom was larger, much larger; that the salon which the father used as an office for his architecture practice, was modern and spare. In reality is it quaint and old fashioned. I don’t remember there being a kitchen at all. Now I’ve been here for a few days, it all feels deeply familiar. My brain has closed around the discrepancies and made them disappear.
We all know that feeling, when you try to imagine something you’ve not yet seen or experienced, and as soon as it happens it’s hard to access the memory of what you thought it would be like. Reality takes over.
It’s caused me to think about how stuck the brain gets, and how a little gentle nudging with a different view of reality is a good idea, essential even, once in a while. I imagined the apartment as one thing, incontrovertible evidence has shown me I was wrong. I imagine someone said something, when in fact they said something different. You perceive someone as critical and demanding, when in fact they are trying to be helpful. You perceive me as bored and uninterested, when in fact I am thinking. I think you are rude, when in fact you are insecure. I am sure you have turned down my invitation because you don’t want to see me, when in fact you believe I never meant it.
I believe human beings misunderstand each other for the majority of the time and the only way out of the problem is to check. It would be better to assume we don’t understand until it becomes clear that we do, rather than the other way around. We need a language for this that doesn’t seem confrontational or judgemental; questions like, can I check I’ve understood you? Or, I heard that request as a criticism, did you mean it that way? Or this is what I’ve understood, is that right? If these were part of our discourse, I do think there would be a lot less unhappiness in the world.
Having said that, my memory generally remains faultess. It was April, we dined with friends, a tenor sang, ah yes, I remember it well.