A new Soul Cartography group is starting this Tuesday! After a number of months backing up and thinking about the process and its context, I’m looking forward to putting it all to use with the intention of helping my students gain insight into the meaning and purpose of their lives. One of the first exercises in the class is the Inventory. This is like going out and doing a survey before creating a map: you need to do the basic work of collecting raw data that can then be rendered into meaningful cartographic form.
For our inventory, I’ll be asking you to look at four dimensions of life, and construct a year-by-year inventory, like this:
…and on through the remainder of your life so far.
This is not easy to do! But it’s incredibly rich and rewarding, and you will likely find insights and identify patterns just by allowing yourself to look at your life in this thorough and multidimensional way.
Because this is really an exercise in autobiographical memory, here are some things to consider as you do this work. (This material is informed by Charles Fernyhough’s wonderful book with a very long title, Pieces of Light: How the New Science of Memory Illuminates the Stories We Tell About Our Pasts. He digs into the brain science and psychology of autobiographical memory in highly readable detail.)
- There are several different kinds of memory. Any of them are fair game for this exercise, though it is useful to be aware of what you’re doing.
- Sensory experiences and semantic memory: Sensory memory contains specific details you recall directly: like the feel of the two crisp five-dollar bills the movers gave me when I helped them load the truck for our move to Seattle at the age of 13. Semantic memory contains things you know happened to you but for which you don’t have a vivid sensory memory. I said goodbye to my best friend Dennis when we moved to Seattle, and it was probably painful, but I really don’t remember that. If I wrote “sad move to Seattle” in a box, that’s a semantic memory. If I wrote “crisp five-dollar bills in my hand”, that’s a sensory memory. You can use either or both.
- Mediated/borrowed memory (especially handy for the early years of our lives, but not limited to that). My sister remembers my mom getting very upset when her husband and her brother-in-law got into a ferocious argument about politics. I don’t remember it myself, but it remains part of my story.
- Unreliable memory. Memory and imagination are almost indistinguishable in their mechanisms of cognitive processing. Of course this can be result in Freudian suppression, or self-delusion, but also in creativity and useful meaning-making. One example: I have a distinct memory of my mother having difficulty nursing me, but I am pretty sure I don’t specifically remember that or have other reason to know that was so. But I have a story about my relationship with my mother, and that detail fits the story rather well – and so it seems very real to me.
- There is a tension in memory between completeness (remembering everything just as it happened) and coherence (selective remembering in service of a narrative). There are limits to both: either an inability to function at all (as in Borges’ story Funes the Memorious, about a man who never forgot anything), or a rigid and overly simplistic view of our lives. In the inventory exercise, you may find patterns of coherence emerging in what you capture. These patterns may fit neatly into a narrative you have about yourself (like “I never do anything right” or “everything in my life has been so easy”). It’s fine to include memories like that, but if you find that happening see if you can let go of it and keep yourself open to other kinds of memories that might point to other possibilities about your life. Don’t worry about this too much, in general the goal is to let the memories come and notice what happens.
- Finally, remember that the evolutionary purpose of memory is to provide information that is useful for making choices in the present. Our caveperson brains remember details about the location of a waterhole (over that craggy hill, behind the two poplar trees) so we can find it again, but we also remember our fear that time the sabertooth tiger was there, or the stomachache we got from the red algae that grows in the hot months, so we can change our behavior accordingly. Of course we use our memories for all kinds of subtle and complex purposes. But it’s well to remember that the only question that ever really matters is “what am I going to do next?” As you work, imagine that all your memories, good or bad, painful or joyful or profoundly embarrassing, have the potential to help you better understand the answer to that question – by giving you a clearer understanding of who you are, and where you are, and where you have been,