by Elise Stephens

Memories compose a large and vital part of our human existence, whether or not we appreciate their effects on us and their changeable natures.

We shrink from the tortured ones that we cannot seem to escape; we grasp at the tender ones that fade without asking for our permission. We form our individual outlooks, personalities, and passions from the stew of these complex amalgamations of events and emotions.

The sociological and psychological impact of memory on individuals as well as on whole societies has fascinated me for quite a while. A lost memory bearing some crucial piece of wisdom or knowledge may make the difference between life and death.

Technology has made wonderful contributions toward the recording and preservation of time and space. The ability to store memories digitally without the reliance on the flawed human mind results in higher precision of recall, such as a video or an audio clip that replays everything with unerring detail. And yet, it’s only through the human possession and handling of such memories that resonance is made, something more than a mere sum of the parts. Thus, the mysterious wonder of the human memory.

We learn and grow from our memories. A human mind beholds the remembered face of a beloved spouse who’s passed away and, from this memory springs forth tenderness, grief, and longing. A different memory awakens aspects of a bygone life-season, such that gratitude arises for the things that what once were. Other painful memories remind us of words we can never take back and rash decisions that have had lasting consequences, which works to caution us against repeating the blunder. Or perhaps we recall a kind, encouraging word, said at just the right moment, that enabled us to see the world in a different, better way.

We carry history in our memories, and our view employs a particular, personal lens that no one else will ever have. We draw stories from our memories and pass them along to peers and to younger generations, helping to preserve and protect that which we deem worth saving.

Psychology studies show that human memories, when revisited, tend to be altered and rebuilt with each visitation. Rather than the comparatively spotless precision of a photograph, certain aspects may sharpen in detail while others blur the next time they’re recalled. Perhaps a new color filter is laid across the memory, such as when a friendship sours, causing previously good memories to be washed over with a retrospective melancholy.

Not to mention the times when two people, who were both present, recall the events in starkly different ways.

So, I ask, if our human memories are both fallible and changeable, why rely on them at all?

Perhaps because memories are our most intimate bridge to our past. Perhaps because they’re the starting points from which we form ourselves. True, they’re colored by our disappointments and our joys, but this seems, at least to me, to make them as much a part of us as anything else.

We carry history in our memories, and our view employs a particular, personal lens that no one else will ever have. We draw stories from our memories and pass them along to peers and to younger generations, helping to preserve and protect that which we deem worth saving. As we share, we also change the memories, choosing to highlight certain details and allow others to grow dim. There is a mercy in human memory that works together with time’s passage to allow those of us subjected to horrors to let the harmful clarity fade from those experiences, unable to hurt us as it once did. At the same time, human memory lets us keep the acts of kindness and the insights that spurred us toward healing.

In “Recollection” (Analog, March/April 2021) [on sale now!], I explored a fictional device called the echo-tin which re-creates the exact audio and visual details of a setting in which it has once been, i.e. a particular afternoon beside a waterfall, or the sights and sounds of a village wedding, such that a person might stand inside the projection and feel themselves almost physically “there” again. Through these projections of time and space, characters’ lives are changed, hope is instilled, knowledge is imparted, and the path of the future is shifted.

In “Inheritance” (Escape Pod, October 2019), I explored the idea of grandchildren inheriting memories from their grandparents, and its deep emotional impact on their lives.

Human memory and machine memory work together to salvage and make meaning.

To revisit a memory within our minds is to change it, yes, but also to keep it alive. It seems to me, then, that rather than treating memories as flawed, we must accept that we change right along with them, just as we accept that change is an inevitable aspect of life.

There are many people who would gladly, if possible, erase or drown the bad memories in favor of keeping just the good ones, in hopes of living a healthier, freer life without the baggage of past trauma (and haven’t I been among them on multiple occasions?). With exceptions for instances of violent abuse, I would argue that our regrets and griefs give us a chance to grow in compassion and purpose. This learning—which is embedded in memories—is vital to our journeys.

The courageous among us will dare to record both the beautiful and the heartbreaking with every tool presently available to us. For far worse than feeling the pain . . . is forgetting it completely.

Elise Stephens credits much of her storytelling influence to a lifelong love of theater and childhood globetrotting. Her work explores themes of beauty within imperfection and finding purpose after a great loss. She is a 2019 Writers of the Future winner and her short fiction appears or is forthcoming in Writers of the Future Vol 35, Escape Pod, Analog, Galaxy’s Edge and Stupefying Stories.

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