Memory

This Fourth of July most of the clan was gathered, and we were playing that unnamed family game, the one that gets more interesting the older we get.

Put a dozen people from four generations in the same room and compete to see how closely memories match up. 

It’s sort of amazing what different people remember, and the different details from the same event that managed to stick in the assorted memories. Recently, my older sister told me that at class reunions, she never remembers how well the basketball team played, but she can recall the style of shoes preferred by their fourth-grade teacher. It’s kind of a superpower, although not one likely to be made into a blockbuster movie. No one else in the class could fill that memory niche.

There’s a term for it: transactive memory. It comes about when a group of people work closely together, closely enough so that you can identify who specializes in which knowledge area. For instance, if you needed a flat tire changed in a thunderstorm, I’d be your man. If you wanted a toddler de-tantrummed at bedtime, all eyes would turn toward my wife. I change storm windows; she remembers birthdays and anniversaries. The system functions pretty well, but it didn’t just happen. We’ve been working on it for almost five decades and it still needs some tweaking every now and then. 

Think about the surviving member of a long-married couple. How often have you heard, “I feel like part of me has died.” That’s almost literally true, because pieces of their world are gone, some of them forever.

Transactive memories don’t just happen. You need a couple, a family, a business team, to work together long enough and hard enough so you learn where everyone's area of expertise lies. Then when a question comes up you can’t answer, you know who to ask, and you know you can believe the answer.  It requires quite a bit of trust, because you’re basically turning part of your life over to someone else. 

Here’s the thing, though. Having that trust, having earned that trust, is the key to everything - in a family, in a business and in a country.

Holidays put me in a contemplative mode, and this one more than others. I worry that, as a country, we’re losing our transactive memory.

As we gathered in the living room Sunday, I knew some things my kids didn’t, and my father knew things I’d never heard. My children, wife, and grandchildren all had insights and memories that had never crossed my mind, but I believed them, and changed my point of view just a bit, based on what they said.

Do you see where I’m going with this? Just because I don’t know something, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist or isn’t true.  Just because I remember an event in a specific way doesn’t mean everyone else’s differing memory is wrong. No one knows the whole truth, but if we all listen to each other, as a group we can get closer to it.

On the other hand, a few people out there are wrong a lot. As a citizen, you should pay attention to public figures who make predictions and pronouncements that don’t pan out, because that’s the other part of transactive memories – if someone’s insights and actions aren’t accurate or useful, we should stop listening to them.

As a couple, a family, a business, or a country, when we can’t hear the truth anymore, we all lose a piece of ourselves. It’s almost like a piece of something very important has died.

Copyright 2021 Brent Olson