Lauren Groff has written: “As I walk in the evening it is only gradually that I understand that the noise is coming from the first air-conditioner turned on for the year. Soon, they will all be on, crouched like trolls under the windows…” For some of us, memories crouch like trolls beneath our equanimity, threatening to pop up and hold us hostage, once more, to the feelings of past events. Many assume that we have no control over the memories that come to us. From a neurological point of view, the neural pathways involved in any memory that we focus on repeatedly are strengthened, making it more likely for that memory to come to mind again and again. The repeated rehashing of an unpleasant memory actually becomes a habit, a neural habit, and the only way to have it come to mind less and less is by not entertaining it. Easier said than done, sometimes, since the emotions connected with the memory can strangely hypnotize our heart and immobilize us!
After I was born Mom lost three babies in a row: one was a miscarriage, one was a boy born with “water on the brain” who lived for only a few hours, and the last was a little girl who died a few days after birth from pneumonia. After the third one died Mom was consumed by a grief so disorienting that it repeatedly drove her back to the cemetery each day to cry over her little girl’s grave. After many of these visits, one day as she was leaving the head-gardener of the cemetery called to her and came over. He said, “I see you coming here every day to grieve, but your grieving is stuck. Say goodbye to your baby today… and then never come back; that’s the only way for you to break the hold that this grief has on you.” When Mom related the incident to me some years ago she finished by saying, “The moment he said it, I knew it was right. But until he said it my heart did not know what to do with the sorrow.”
We may not have chosen to have something bad happen to us, but beyond a reasonable number of times trying to make sense of what happened, we can choose to keep from going back to the memory of it and allowing it to keep re-poisoning our inner life! But how? How can we choose to not remember? The mind is made for thinking… this is what it does… and in order to stop thinking about one thing we need to push something else in there to become the mind’s focus, something other than the memory. In our Orthodox Christian tradition it can be calling to mind the Jesus Prayer, but any mantra or saying that is significant for that person can be used. The trick is to catch on to the presence of the bad memory before we automatically get sucked into all of the terrible feelings connected to that past event. But the more we successfully call to mind that we need to change our focus, the less power the trolls have!
Pope St. John XXIII once said, “Goodness is not a gift… it is a choice.” The same can be said of peacefulness and happiness, although this does not mean that they are an easy choice; the trolls are crouched, always waiting! And yet, just because happiness is not an easy choice does not mean that we cannot find our way to it. In the end, as it did for Mom endlessly returning to the cemetery, the question for us boils down to: Are we willing to leave this behind… or not?