Periodically, we all look back at our lives and regret some of our words and actions. At least we have the luxury of not remembering everything we said and did! But what if you did remember? Imagine that you remembered, in detail, every single day of your life since you were a young child: what you thought about others; what you said to them; the actions you took.
Would you be overcome with regret?
In a 60 Minutes show that aired December, 19, 2010, I met six people who have Superior Autobiographical Memory. They have the rare ability to vividly remember every detail of their lives since they were young children. Correspondent Lesley Stahl would throw out a date—say, April 12, 1992—and they were able to tell her what they wore, what they ate, what they did, who they talked to, who broke their heart.
It’s hard to understand how someone could live at peace with this ability and, in fact, one of the women whom Stahl wanted to include in the story declined the invitation because, to her, Superior Autobiographical Memory is a curse not a blessing.
But to Louise Owen, a professional violinist from New York City in her late 30s, Superior Autobiographical Memory is a gift that has enhanced her life.
Leslie: Are you glad you have this?
Louise: I am. I feel like it makes me live my life with so much more intention, so much more joy.
Leslie: What do you mean by intention?
Louise: I know I’m going to remember whatever happens today, so it’s like, “All right. What can I do to make today significant? What can I do that is going to make today stand out?”
Most of us think, “If I do this or if I get that today, I’ll be happy tomorrow,” but Louise Owen knows for sure what will make her happy tomorrow: doing things today that she’ll feel good about having done when she remembers them tomorrow…and tomorrow and tomorrow.
Louise is conducting her life so that she won't look back with regret even though Superior Autobiographical Memory seems like a set-up for looking back with a truckload of regret! At least you and I have the luxury of having forgotten some of our past harmful words and actions. There are things we said or did that we might regret, but we don't remember them or we misremember them in some way—“Well, I didn't really say that...”
Louise remembers everything.
The interview with Louise had a profound effect on me. Sometimes when I wake up in the morning, I recall her words and think to myself, “If I were fated to remember everything that happens today, how would I want to conduct myself?” This encourages me to speak and act with kindness, compassion, and generosity—the three karmic intentions that help to reduce suffering in ourselves and others. (I discussed these in my piece, "What is Karma and Why Should It Matter to Us?")
I encourage you to try this as an exercise. Pick a morning and assume that, for the rest of your life, you’re going to remember everything you said or did during the day ahead. Then consider what’s on your agenda for the day. If it includes going to a meeting, you could resolve to be a good listener and to consider other points of view before jumping in to disagree. Or if the day includes picking up your kids after school, you could resolve to give them your full attention when they get into the car and to ask them what went well for them today.
Sometimes I also ask, as Louise does, “What can I do that is going to make today stand out?” This inspires me to do something unique or to be especially kind and generous to someone on that day. Of course, I can opt out whenever I please and know that there’s a good chance I won’t remember. What did I do on May 3, 2012? I have no idea.
But, whatever it was, I hope it lived up to the example set by Louise Owen.
© 2012 Toni Bernhard www.tonibernhard.com
Thank you for reading my work. My most recent book is titled How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow.
I'm also the author of the award-winning How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and their Caregivers.