Memory is Faulty: Stream of Consciousness Saturday


It’s been a while since I’ve taken part in Stream of Consciousness Saturday, organized by blogger LindaGHill, and I’ve missed it! So here I am in time for this week’s prompt, which is “memory.” My first thought on this?

That memory is faulty — yet how often don’t we overlook this fact, often to our detriment?

I can’t tell you how many times I, or people around me, have wasted time and/or gotten upset with someone else based on something “remembered” which turns out to have been incorrect. This effect is compounded when it’s based on someone else’s memory.

Instead of first asking the person about what was said or done, and considering all possibilities, many of us get stuck on the one way we’re sure something happened.

Why do we do this to ourselves and those around us? If we need any proof of how bad our memories can be, just take a look at the countless stories of eyewitness accounts which have turned out to be proven wrong — if people can misremember important details in such serious situations, who are we to think our recollections of more minor events would be any better?

Take, for instance, the following sources confirming the unreliability of eyewitness accounts and our memories:

(Incidentally, although I’m writing this off-the-cuff as per the SOCS guidelines, I had to look up and link to some sources here so I don’t sound like my stance is baseless!)

There are countless other results that pop up when you search for this topic, but they all boil down to the same conclusion:

Don’t over-rely on your memories.

Just don’t assume that what you remember is 100% accurate — and certainly don’t let it affect how you interact with others. Give them the benefit of the doubt.

Oh, and by the way, as I write this, I’m also telling this to myself; in no way am I above jumping to conclusions based on inaccurate recollections! Just ask any of the relatives or co-workers who I’ve been convinced have an item of mine that I need — I’ll swear they borrowed it last or that I saw them put it someplace…

only to discover that I had it somewhere else all along.

You know you do it, too. Hopefully you can remember that at least? 🙂

I’ve Talked to a Tree — and I Think It Talked Back

Me as a child, at the height of my tree-talking days.

Me as a child, at the height of my tree-talking days.

When I was a kid, I used to regularly talk to the tree outside my bedroom window. I loved that tree, and not just because it was pretty, but also because I was convinced it would respond to me.

What would I say to it? Usually I would say hi and good morning, then tell it just how pretty I thought it was and how I loved it. Then I’d inevitably ask if it loved me too; if the tree’s leaves ruffled significantly, that was “yes” and if the tree stayed mostly still, that was “no.”

I’m proud to say I don’t recall the tree ever telling me it didn’t love me. And I swear I never cheated by asking that question on windy days or when the tree was already moving. (I tended to be an overly honest kid, even to the point of letting teachers know when they’d mistakenly given me a higher test score due to a grading error. Yeah, I was that kid.)

Other times I’d ask more specific questions, like, “Will I have a good birthday party this weekend?” You know, matters of importance when you’re a child. And I’d be thrilled when the tree would immediately respond with rustling, swaying leaves. Or I’d be happy when it would stay still, like when I asked it if I would get a bad report card. And sometimes I didn’t ask any questions, instead talking to it about whatever was on my mind.

I can’t tell you how I came to start conversing with this tree, since these chats began almost as soon as I could talk and interact with others as a toddler — although those early conversations were likely limited. But as far back as I can remember, I would greet this tree and speak with it to the best of my ability, just as I would communicate with anyone else. It seemed perfectly normal to me, and I don’t recall initially feeling like what I was doing was “weird” or that my encounters were in my mind. Especially since the responses I’d get when I asked a question were uncannily accurate and flowed with the conversation nicely.

As I grew up, though, I unfortunately allowed myself to become more cynical and easily embarrassed if I did things other people didn’t do or admit to. So I don’t recall having these tree chats after about age 8, or even talking about them. In fact, as I got older, I rarely reflected back on those times at all. It’s only been in the past few years that I started remembering this and wondering why I’d done it — and whether I’d been on to something, or if I’d simply been a weird kid.

So, recently I’ve talked to other people to get their reactions on my tree chats. Incidentally, it’s not easy to bring up a topic like this casually. “Wow, is it hot out today! It’s almost as bad as the summer I was 7 and my tree agreed it was the hottest summer in years!” (Cue strange look.)

No, instead I just openly described the experience to friends, family and some select coworkers and asked them what they thought, or if they’d ever experienced something similar.

Pretty much everyone found it odd, and to this day, no one I know has ever admitted to anything like this. And although some were amused by my account, others seemed genuinely perplexed and even slightly disturbed by this behavior.

“You did what? Talked to a tree?” they’d ask incredulously, eying me closely as if looking for signs of a mental instability they’d missed before my confession. Somehow my experience seemed stranger to them than the prevalence of imaginary friends among young children. But the tree was a real, living thing — so why couldn’t I be friends with it?

Finally, though, I seemed to find one person who was open to an unusual situation like mine.

“I don’t think that’s weird,” a co-worker told me.

Aha! I felt understood!

“I think behaviors like that are common among only children,” she continued.

Oh. She thought I had talked to the tree since I’d grown up without brothers or sisters. That it was typical weird-only-child behavior stemming from boredom and trying to ease my loneliness. But I knew that wasn’t true, for a few reasons.

First of all, while I was growing up my mom worked as a babysitter out of our home to make sure I’d be well-socialized despite having no siblings — so I virtually always had other kids to play with and talk to. And I got to build relationships with them since my mom would be their primary babysitter for years; these weren’t just sporadic babysitting jobs with different children each time.

Plus, even when the kids went home at night, we often had family over or neighbors we’d become very close to, including a family in our building with a girl my age; she and I became best friends throughout elementary school, spending many nights in each other’s houses.

I also got along well with my mom, so it wasn’t like I was left to entertain myself if no other kids were around; my mom and I often played games, watched videos, went to the park….I basically never recall feeling bored or lonely.

Besides, I couldn’t get over the fact that the answers I’d get from the tree, and the feeling I had in these encounters, seemed too real to dismiss. You know when you just know something?

Like let’s say someone lies to you and although you have no proof, you just know you’re right. It may take time to get your confirmation, but eventually it comes and then you feel validated.

Or have you ever had a moment when you’re first meeting someone, perhaps a person you’ll eventually become close friends with, and you just know you feel a bond with them? Like a shared understanding, and you’re sure they feel it too — and down the line, you find out you do in fact have that bond and that they did feel it too? Well, that’s how I felt with my tree; I was sure I was in fact feeling a true connection to it.

Now I know it could be said that perhaps in hindsight my memory is sort of playing tricks on me, making me think these experiences were more accurate and significant than they were. I’m open-minded enough to have considered that possibility, but ultimately I choose to rely on the way I remember feeling and thinking in those special moments.

I’m not one to get lost in fantasies and was the same as a child; I wasn’t the type to talk with my dolls or stuffed animals, for instance. So the fact that this happened makes me feel that I was indeed talking with that tree. Although I’d still love to find others who may have experienced something like this, not having that still doesn’t take away from what I felt then and now consider to be true.

I should mention that I didn’t chat with every tree I saw; it’s not like I was obsessed with trees in general. For whatever reason, it was just this tree. One likely reason was my easy access to it at all hours, since it was right outside my window; but I also think I’d bonded with it, having seen it there since I’d been born. And a part of me likes to think that the tree may have connected with me too, on some kind of metaphysical level — particularly since I was a child, and children tend to be much more open to experiences outside of the “norm.” I sensed it was more than just a thing, and that was all I needed to be able to communicate with it in a way that most adults wouldn’t, or couldn’t, do.

Something that puzzled me, though, was why I had put these memories out of my mind for so long. But I’ve come up with a theory about this that makes sense to me now. It has to do with something that deeply affected me a few years later.

One day when I was about 13 or so, I woke up to the sound of banging outside. When I got out of bed to take a look out the window, I was horrified to see that the neighbors next door, where the tree’s roots were located, were having the tree chopped down.

I was horrified as I saw the tree shake with each slice into its trunk. I immediately felt profoundly sad, because I really loved that tree — even if I had stopped talking to it years before.

Later, the family that had chopped the tree down said it had grown too much and they’d wanted more light in their house. I have to say I never liked them after that. I don’t care if that makes me sound crazy; couldn’t they have just trimmed the branches, maybe?

I know at this point I’m sounding like some kind of tree-hugger. That’s fine by me. If anything, I wish I could talk to that tree again. I’d tell it I’m no longer embarrassed to have been friends with it and that I’m sorry I didn’t talk to it more while I had the chance.

Different Perspectives on the Same Situation

Recently I was thinking about the time I fully realized how individuals can have drastically different views of the same situation — and how we’re often our own harshest critics.

Here’s what happened.

Years ago, I hailed a cab in Manhattan and the cab driver was extremely rude to me the whole way. He didn’t want to take the route I asked him to take (which is the passenger’s right in a New York City taxi) and openly yelled at me a few times, saying that he knew the best way to go, that my way was full of traffic, blah blah blah. Meanwhile, as a native New Yorker, I knew my way around just as well — plus the route he’d wanted to take had proven to be worse for me in the past traffic-wise. So I stayed firm on my preferred route. Unhappy about not getting his way, he then muttered to himself on and off for the rest of the ride.

I was kind of in a rush and had a hard time getting a cab in the first place, so I stuck it out. I have to admit that a part of me also did wonder if something about me warranted his behavior. Did I come off more mild-mannered than I should have when I initially told him where I wanted to go, and how? Or should I not have insisted on my way afterwards?

“What is it about me that makes him think he can treat me this way?” I’d thought during the ride.

Later, I told my closest friend this, and she laughed with surprise.

“That’s so odd, because if it had been me, I would have thought, ‘What is it about him that makes him think he can treat me this way?’” she said.

I immediately knew she was right, and that simple yet brilliant distinction has always stuck with me.

We shouldn’t doubt and blame ourselves for every bad situation we find ourselves in with other people. This experience, though stressful in the moment, turned out to be a good thing for me because my friend’s comment about it helped open my eyes; now I don’t doubt myself unfairly when someone else is being out of line. I’ve even since learned a trick for proactively handling difficult people.

So if you ever have an odd encounter with someone and don’t know what to make of it, while it’s worthwhile to evaluate your own actions, don’t jump to criticizing or blaming yourself for 100% of what happened. At the very least, try to get a more objective opinion on what happened by sharing your story with a friend — or here!

Getting Out — the Right Way

I’ve become an expert at “getting out.”

When I’ve held jobs in negative work environments — I got out.

When I’ve been in relationships that weren’t right for me — I got out.

When I’ve had friendships that turned out to be one-sided or unfulfilling — I got out.

When I’ve been asked to a social event or other kind of optional obligation that I either didn’t have the time or money for, or wasn’t interested in — I got out of it.

I hope these examples don’t make me sound like someone who jumps ship constantly — that’s not me. For instance, I’ve held most of my jobs for years at a time; I have a circle of friends I’ve been close to for over a decade; and I do go out! It’s just that now I know what kinds of jobs, people and social situations I prefer — and which I don’t.

It’s all a function of getting to know myself and read situations and people better than I used to when I was younger. I’m in my thirties now and no longer feel compelled to join in on events or pursue professional paths that others flock to, if I know they’re not a match for me and my values. Same goes for the people I spend time with.

So I’m an advocate of “getting out” whenever the situation calls for it.

I do believe, though, that it should be done after much thought, and with consideration and compassion. That means:

  • If I’m in a job I hate, I usually stick it out for a while to be sure I’m not being premature in my decision to leave. When I do resign, I give the proper amount of notice (in some cases, even more than the standard two weeks) and do the work that is expected of me until my very last day; in other words, I won’t leave them in the lurch or slack off just because I know I’ll be out of there soon enough. That’s just not right.
  • If I find that someone’s not as good a friend as I’d thought, I again wait it out to be sure, and then I either talk to the person about my feelings or recognize when we’re just fundamentally incompatible. For example: if a close friend has done something to hurt me, it should be aired out to clear up any misunderstandings. Or, if the person is someone I don’t view as a good friend but they’ve begun seeing me as one, that’s not fair to them either — this has happened to me with some co-workers, and I had to eventually distance myself from them. I didn’t feel right having them believe I was a close friend, when I knew we were too fundamentally different to be close outside of work. I’ve applied the same principles to relationships — either talk it out, or end it if you know things are not right.
  • If I’m invited to an event I know I’m not interested in, or can’t afford time-wise or financially, I tell the person as soon as possible. I won’t say I’m attending and then be a no-show. Even if I’m sick, as happened one New Year’s Eve when my friends and I had plans to go out to a lounge but I had a case of food poisoning; I told them as soon as it happened and paid my friend for my ticket, despite his compassionate offer to cover it.

Ultimately, my point is, if you’re in bad situation for you? Get out — just do it the right way.

Note: This post was created as part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday, organized by LindaGHill; this week’s writing prompt was “getting away, or getting out.” Checks out the links above to find out more about it!