Because of my selective memory, hiking Table Rock isn’t all that different from riding Disney’s Tower of Terror. Whether I’m wheezing up boulders or voluntarily crammed against sweaty strangers in a broken elevator, I can’t help but bargain with God or calculate how much I’ll be spending on therapy to deal with the ensuing trauma. But the weird part is this: the further I get from the mountain or the elevator, the more vehemently I say to myself, wow, that was fun! I can’t wait to do that again!
A few autumns ago I was driving home from a conference when I spotted the turn-off for Table Rock State Park. I had hiked Table Rock many times before, and I even have a picture of myself draped over an elevation sign in sheer exhaustion. But I guess the recollection of the spectacular view had cued my selective memory: after all, I was wearing sandals, didn’t have a water bottle, and hadn’t so much as taken a walk in months. So naturally I figured I’d take a quick jaunt to the top, hop back in the car, and keep on driving south.
Needless to say, two hours later I realized that four miles was a lot longer than I remembered. I was feeling nauseous and light-headed, sprawled out on the side of the trail, when a pair of hikers approached. After checking that I wasn’t a corpse, they offered me their extra water bottle. I trudged to the top behind my good Samaritans, convinced I’d encountered Jesus himself.
Merriam-Webster defines selective memory as “the tendency to remember only what one wants to remember,” and what we want to remember is usually only the information that affirms our current beliefs or assumptions. When we are in a good mood, we tend to remember the good times, while when we’re in a bad mood, we remember the bad times. This could partly explain why traffic jams make us want to kill the person we’re in the car with. But catch this same person at a Bob Marley concert, and memories of the good times come flooding back.
Selective memory also plays out in bigger ways: when there is joy and fulfillment, we remember the wonderful things that God has done for us, and we anticipate a bright future ahead. But when grief, illness, or depression strike, God often seems conspicuously absent. We have a hard time remembering what it was like to be happy, which leaves us unable to envision a way out of the darkness.
Autumn is my favorite time of year. It is falling leaves and apple-picking. It is the cozy smell of jack-o-lantern guts and the music from It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown playing in the background. But while I’m sipping my $7 pumpkin spice latte and my niece is telling me about her Halloween costume, the daylight is getting shorter and the nights are getting longer. In autumn, the excitement and festivities cue my selective memory, making it easy to assume that happy times and laughter can last forever, making it easy to forget just how long January can be.
“At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten young bridesmaids who took their lamps and went out to meet the groom. 2 Now five of them were wise, and the other five were foolish. 3 The foolish ones took their lamps but didn’t bring oil for them. 4 But the wise ones took their lamps and also brought containers of oil” (Matthew 25:1-4).
I learned in my Intro to Psychology class that our brains create neurological pathways kind of like how people form trails through the woods. Walking a path for the first time requires plowing through thorns and tall weeds and spider webs. But trod that well-worn path every day, and it becomes the most natural, easy path to take. This same thing happens with our brains, as neural pathways form through repetition. This means that the more we practice spiritually constructive thinking, the more instinctive it becomes.
Our EngagingSpirituality program guides our JustFaith community in spiritual disciplines that sustain us not only in the excitement of autumn, but also in the dark days of January. For 21 weeks, we build our “spiritual muscles,” so to speak, learning the practices that not only draw us closer to God and each other, but also prepare us for the dark nights of winter and the dark nights of the soul.
When selective memory takes over for the worse, and it’s hard to remember joy and laughter and even harder to hold onto hope, it helps to have cultivated a faith that can sustain us. It helps to have forged the path in the light so that we can follow the trail even in the dark. Whether it’s through our EngagingSpirituality program or another form of spiritual preparation, we at JustFaith Ministries invite you into preparing our oil for the night of winter that we might together rejoice in the light of the bridegroom’s banquet.