Making the Present the Past You Want to Remember

We didn’t want to make it the way it was. We wanted to make it the way we remembered it.
– creators of the Netflix series “Voltron”

That quote has stuck with me ever since one of my best friends (and far superior a geek than I will ever be) related it to me. It applies to so much; the reason many Southerners are upset about the removal of Confederate monuments; the whole idea behind “MAGA”; the futile-but-endless arguments about Bernie-vs-Hilary. It has run into my own work, where people compare events I work on now with the way they remember events in the past, conveniently forgetting many of the lessons learned from mistakes made.

It’s not a fault, it’s a survival mechanism. Many brain researchers have come to the conclusion that our memories of all but the most traumatic events are designed to remember the good things, not the bad ones, letting the unpleasantness we’ve lived through fade.

… the fading affect bias (FAB) indicates that the emotional response prompted by positive memories often tends to be stronger than the emotional response prompted by negative memories .. the FAB reflects two trends:
(1) over time, the affect associated with positive memories tends to fade more slowly from event occurrence to event recall than the affect associated with negative memories, and
(2) it is more often the case that events that were negative at their occurrence will ultimately come to prompt positive affect-at-recall than it is the case that events that were positive at their occurrence will come to prompt negative affect-at-recall.

Did you catch that last part? It is more likely that we will remember bad events positively (“Man, can you believe we lived through that?”) than good events negatively (“Sure wish I hadn’t saved that puppy…”). There are all kinds of neat ways to leverage this, it turns out – even some people affected by depression have been helped by creating “memory paths” of good events that they can call upon when needed.

But what if we could do better than that? What if we could pre-load the system?

The Crisis of Compassion

This past weekend I was urging a group of people to have some compassion for a person who had done some bad things. The things don’t matter for this point; what matters is that they found this person to be irredeemably banned from their friendship and their social circles.

That’s fine; sometimes that’s needed in order to protect the herd, whether from predators or from people who simply seem to be hurtful to the group. What’s not fine is to pretend that the person didn’t actually come from the group; that the person was more than simply the harmful actions they’d done. That tendency – to make out some members of your crowd as monsters as opposed to the rest of the “good” people” – is known as “othering” and it’s a real danger:

…an accountability process for the aggressor can be confrontational, even angry, but it should not be de-humanizing….If we separate ourselves from the offenders…we fail to see how we contributed to conditions that allow violence to happen.
taking risks: implementing grassroots community accountability strategies

The word for this kind of empathy, even for those who have done wrong, is compassion, and it has been recommended by pretty much every spiritual leader in the history of scriptures:

  • “Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world. By non-hatred alone is hatred appeased. This is a law eternal.” – Buddha, the Dhammapada
  • “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” – New Testament, John 8:7
  • “My mercy takes precedence over my anger” – Hadith on Mercy
  • “If a man commits an offense against his fellow, he takes vengeance on him and will not forgive him, and even if he forgives him on the surface he nurses a grudge in his heart. But I am full of forgiveness. And when I forgive, I do so in truth, and no trace of the sin remains” – Torah, Proverbs 28:13

Even the atheists get behind the idea:

  • “I find compassion in atheism: It makes me want to help people, because the idea that I stood by and watched someone’s one shot at life go badly in a way I could have prevented makes me enormously sad.” – Michael Meyerside

I know very few people who will say “Nope. Compassion is not something I want to have.” But what I have found – over and over – is that they will say that if you add on three words: “…for that person.”

The Best Time to Plant the Compassion Tree

You know that one, right? “The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago; the second best time is today.” I was reminded of that saying by my girlfriend last week, as she contemplated what kind of tree to plant in her backyard (pro tip: she made it even more best by planting two trees).

That’s the thing about compassion. I’m betting that most of us can think back to a time when we wish we’d shown more compassion. Times and places where we can see where we could have acted better – or at least, more in accordance with our Best Self. If you are the individual reading this who can’t imagine a time you could have shown more compassion – well, thanks for reading my blog, Buddha!

For the rest of us, that was the twenty years ago. Now it’s the next best time to show compassion: right this second. And I get it, it’s hard; that person has done, or maybe even is doing, wrong, and possibly causing you or those you love pain.

There is no reason you need to justify that. There is every reason to protect yourself (and those you love) and do everything necessary to remove harm, including ostracizing the hurtful person from your life.

That does not mean that you have to forget that they are a person.

And before someone brings up the “They don’t deserve compassion!” argument, in contradiction of just about every person considered wise enough to be written down, well, I’ll stipulate that. You’re right. They don’t deserve your compassion.

But you do.

You deserve to be able to look back on this moment and remember it as a time when you had compassion. Notice I didn’t say “showed” compassion; that’s not what it’s about. The point is that Hatred does not appease hatred. You saying bad things about this villain to your friends, to yourself, reveling in the righteous wrath that you’re due – that’s not going to be something your future self can look back on with joy.

It’s not easy. I’m certainly not great at it; even when I remember to say “But I have to remember they are people, too” it’s through gritted teeth and after a few punches at the heavy bag.

Like a tree, though, if you plant it now, and take care of it, your compassion will grow. I could take the metaphor further, and say that it might even bear fruit or provide shelter for others…but this blog post is long enough already.

Just try it, ok? See if the next time you’re filled with anger and disgust at someone (and lord knows the news gives us plenty of opportunities) just try to also show a little compassion for them.

See if it can take root. Maybe twenty years from now you can look back on your present self and smile.

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