Yesterday’s post In the Background, has lingered with me since I wrote the piece. In that post, when asked when the pandemic would end, Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University, replied: “It doesn’t end. We just stop caring. Or we care a lot less. I think for most people, it just fades into the background of their lives.” I wonder what part of my life and experience has faded into the background of life.
The other night I spoke for about 90 minutes to one of my good friends from high school – and that was 50 year ago. We really have not lived in the same part of the country, drop by visiting is not possible. But the ease of the conversation is probably indicated by the length. I am reminded to call him each year on his birthday. It is easy for me to remember as he shared the date with my mom. The year between calls (not always but often) it is not a matter of caring, but perhaps it fits into “fades into the background” until it is time to retrieve it. Is that a bad thing? I think not. We each have a full complex of life and relationships right where we are – and appropriately so we attend to them.
The anniversary of my mom’s birthday is a reminder to call my friend. But it makes me wonder what things “faded into the background” without some external marker to retrieve them. Psychologists refer to that as a “recall cue.” A few years ago while visiting the Atlanta side of the family, I spent time with my cousin Frank. As we chatted I wondered if we had lived the same life. He had these great memories of things we had done together. When he would recall an event – and often with great detail – and had no clue about the event…. But then there was a vague, “Oh yeah…. Maybe?” Frank had the advantage of all the things that can trigger memory: people, places, sights, sounds, smells, and all the rest. It did seem that the longer I was around the family, the more I recalled, and made more memory connections. More and more, a whole range of memories came to ready recall – out of storage somewhere in the misty past of memory.
Memory is an interesting thing. There are many physiological and psychological theories around the topic, but lots of folks seem to agree we have memory for facts and memory for context. Sometimes the memories are general and sometimes explicit. We tie memory to specific events, personal experiences, semantic categories and more. Then whatever the memory, we have to “register” the memory, store it and then recall it.
A recent study proposed there is a six-stage neuro-chemical process that has to occur for a memory to be registered and retained long-term. Part of that retention is connecting the memory to something specific or to your own semantic structure of remembrance. I always silently chuckle when someone asks me, “Father, do you remember your homily from five weeks ago?” I generally respond, “What did you find interesting about it?” as an alternative to the simple, “No.” There was something about the homily that for one listener that gave enough “energy” to satisfy the complex “registration” in longer term memory. Me? I “register” them on paper and long term store them on my computer because between now and 5 weeks ago there are a whole lot of other homilies from daily and Sunday masses.
Maybe I am a little fuzzy on homilies, but other memories are as clear and instantaneously present to me as the day they happened. But for lots of recall it just takes a while to access the memory, it takes the right “nudge” or catalyst, and then it can be retrieved.
Anyway… makes me wonder what I care about that waits in the background waiting for the right nudge.