Memories can turn bittersweet in a second.
I can be happily following the rabbit trail of my thoughts, hopping between afternoon plans and pleasant reminiscing when WHAM!
It’s like a hole suddenly opened up beneath my feet, or a rock slammed me back twenty yards. Use whatever analogy you want – perhaps you’ve experienced it too? – but a wave of sadness, or anger, or fear (or all three) has me pinned and wriggling beneath its weight. My happy little thought trail just turned deadly.
Maybe it’s the loss of a loved one, or a struggling relationship, or a transition you’re trying to navigate. There will be a time when memories bring you joy and comfort, but not right away. First, they hurt. They hurt like a red hot poker you can’t get near enough to touch. And so you stay away. But eventually those memories start to sneak in. A familiar location, a familiar scent, a familiar sound. Between the red hot poker phase and the happy memory phase there is this in-between time. A memory starts out so innocently that you glance its way. And then it pummels you.
I’m navigating that in-between time right now. Trying to learn when it’s okay to look, and when it’s not. When it’s safe to let my mind wander, and when my mind is about to turn against me. It is a journey by trial and error. But it’s a journey I have to take. If I never touch the thoughts, I never progress. I would simply harden my heart, withdraw, turn cold. But on the other hand, if I move too quickly, I will drown in the floodgates of emotion.
I am learning to walk my thought trails with a weapon at the ready, and the weapon I have found most effective may surprise you. There is a fraction of second, a space barely the size of the gap between two thoughts, when I feel my thoughts turning against me, swinging me over a pit of grief.
And in that thought gap, that fraction between thought and emotion, I throw a net.
A net of thanksgiving.
“I am thankful for this memory,” I say. And then I transition immediately to the present. “I am thankful that God is continuing to take care of me and preparing new moments for me to enjoy. I am thankful God is restoring old relationships and bringing new relationships. Thank you…”
The secret to success with this weapon is three-fold. First, I have to throw the net the milli-second I feel myself being swung over that pit. I can’t test the thought to see if it’s really turning on me; I can’t think a little further to see if it’s really all that sad. I lose that battle every time, and once I’m on the way down, it’s much harder to grab a handhold.
Second, I have to move away from the memory that threw me over the pit to begin with. Too many times I’ve tried to weave a net of thanksgiving by stringing together everything I’m thankful for in that old memory. The problem is that while my brain is saying thank you, my heart is feeling the loss of every one of those old memories. Before I know it, I’ve used my net to climb down into the very pit I was trying to avoid.
Third, this is a safety net, not a hammock. This strategy disrupts the spiraling thoughts just enough for me to get back to safer ground. Whatever train of thought brought me to the edge, now is not the time to hop on board again. Too many times I’ve swung myself out of the pit just to ride my thoughts right back down into it. If I can’t lead my thoughts elsewhere on my own, I need to turn on music, a podcast, or call a friend. Anything to move to a new location in my mind. I can go visit that train of thought some other day.
Memories are finicky things. They don’t always announce whether they are friend or foe, whether they carry joy or sadness. Often they carry both. Memories allow us to learn, to grow, and to relive moments. But their power should propel us toward our future, not hold us mired in the past. There are times we need to thank them for their service, and walk away.
Janet Beagle, Ph.D. serves as director of graduate programs for Purdue University’s College of Engineering and is a writer, a Bible study teacher, and a student of God’s word. In her spare time, she likes to eat other people’s cooking and hike with her dog, Marly. Read more of Janet’s Christian reflections at www.mustardpatch.org.