I recently came across a journal prompt that went like this: “When everything else is stripped away, and no one’s opinion is influencing you, what is your truth?” Well now. That is quite the question, right? As many of you know, I spend lots of time each week with three little people under the age of five who I can guarantee you know the answer. For them, truth equals self; they are one and the same. Up until a certain point, we all shared that perspective. We were blissfully unaware that everyone views the world in a different way, which led us to the logical conclusion that everyone must see us exactly as we see ourselves. The possibility of not being accepted was nowhere on our radar. Around the time we turned five years old, however, we began to become self aware, and that led to the realization that other people aren’t always thinking and feeling the same way we are. Self awareness in an adult is a wonderful thing. It enables us to understand and recognize our strengths and weaknesses, and it heightens our intuitive response to other people’s feelings and circumstances. The first inkling of self awareness in a child, however, most likely comes as a bit of a shock. This is the moment when we discover that in addition to being very different as individuals, there is also a kind of social ranking that exists between us. What comes next makes matters even worse: we soon learn that we’re going to have to figure out how we fit into that hierarchy, and whether or not our truth is going to make that process easier or harder.
If you are a This Is Us fan, you know that last week’s episode was all about memories. I’m not giving anything away; I think we can safely expect that the focus of this entire season will have something to do with the things we remember. The concept of losing our memory in any way is a terrifying one. The life inside our heads is such an incredibly rich combination of all that we’ve learned, all that we’ve experienced, and all of the emotional reactions subsequently intertwined with both. This last component is a critical part of the equation. Almost every one of us can remember what the weather was like on the emotionally charged days when each of our children was born, but we might struggle to recall those same details from just last week. Scientists have learned that memories that have strong ties to feelings such as joy, shame, love, or grief are stored in a different part of the brain and tend to have the longest staying power. This emotional connection led me to wonder about how memories are tied to sensory experience, especially after writing last week’s post about how important the stimulation is that comes in through our five senses. A quick bit of research revealed that each sensory memory has its own name: visual is iconic, auditory is echoic, touch is haptic, smell is olfactory, and taste is gustatory. Because so much sensory input rains down upon us every day, these types of memories are not really built to be retained on their own. Most of them, in fact, will only last a few seconds. They are only moved into long term storage when they evoke a deep emotional response.
I think there are few people who would argue with the statement that we are currently living through a time of unprecedented difficulty. As we close in on the 2-year anniversary of the first U.S. Covid cases, we still find ourselves in a kind of holding pattern, circling the airport, waiting to learn what the future will bring. The greatest unanswered question, arguably, revolves around the concept of returning to normalcy. Now don’t get me wrong, I know that it’s better to be safe than sorry. That’s been my position right from the start. Nevertheless, I think that one of the things we can all universally agree on is that we miss human interaction and the human experiences that appeal to our sense of aesthetics. This pandemic has required periods of isolation and restriction, many of which we thought were behind us, but this recent surge feels eerily reminiscent of early 2020. From everything we’re being told, we are NOT back in that place, but it’s certainly easy to understand why we might feel that way. The bottom line is that when human beings spend too much time alone, unable to be a part of the world, a kind of sensory deprivation begins to occur that can leave us feeling emotionally drained. We are, after all, very social creatures, and we have a certain craving for interaction, connection, and shared moments of grace at a collective level. Without these things, we are greatly changed.
I have a certain affection for the word midwinter. It has always helped me to verbalize this period that comes after Christmas when we are in post-celebratory mode, and the world has become a much quieter, introverted version of the one we left behind in December. As it turns out, the term midwinter is actually synonymous with the winter solstice, so it seems as though my thinking may have been a little bit off, at least in terms of timing. Maybe not in terms of sentiment, though, if we consider the opening lines of In the Bleak Midwinter, a Christmas poem written in 1872 by Christina Rossetti and set to music by Gustav Holst: