THE BLOG

A Sea of 'Happiness' Without Memory

05/22/2012 10:43 pm ET | Updated Jul 22, 2012

One definition of memorialize is: preserve the memory of; to commemorate. And then for commemorate we have: recall and show respect for (someone or something) in a ceremony; serve as a memorial to. And leading up to the idea of the contradictions that come to us with Memorial Day, we have the notion of memory, defined as: the mental capacity or faculty of retaining and reviving facts, events, impressions, etc., or of recalling or recognizing previous experiences.

Although many of us wish for fame and specialness etched in the glossy sales of our accomplishments or ourselves, odds are that at least many of the very crucial contributors to civilization will become, with time, a sales day, a three-day weekend, a tunnel or bridge or airport, and of course the beginning of a season, as in Labor Day and yes, Memorial Day.

With the advent of positive psychology, there has been a vast emphasis on finding happiness, and we might say selling it, and for a pittance at that. All we have to do, it seems, is buy into the idea that unhappiness -- which we are brought to feel is a bad thing -- is caused by the stories we tell ourselves about our past. If we are to get into a better relationship with the past, we have to create new stories about that past. Buddhism, in its popularized forms, seems to have been co-opted as a promiser of the happiness bubble now posing as the answer to mental health.

Gone, in this picture of wonder, is the notion that remembering the past can help us not repeat it, since what we learn with rose-colored glasses is, well, a tad limited. Of course, in addition, how we process the past and how we allow or disallow empathy with our own past and its combinations of contents and discontents will influence how and if we learn anything from our experience other than to repeat it or to hide from it. I am pessimistic about any psychology that sells rose-colored glasses, and what's more it hints at brain washing, don't you think, as in "invent a story, any story, and then be grateful for that story."

Beyond flags and parades and sales, Memorial Day could consist of taking time to ponder the threat and disasters of wars, past and present, and to study the human compulsion to move toward blame, scapegoating and revenge. But to do so we would have to focus also on how we are not encouraged to recall and awaken thinking about the past as a rich source of information and capacity for empathy as well -- empathy that comes more readily when we hear the stories behind the people we have been taught to hate. And we can identify out loud with all manner of human experience, the better to know and integrate.

Positive thinking as it is in many places isn't conducive to social activism or putting energy even into thinking about the way we bypass social issues on our way to the singular goal of happiness, which seems to have replaced or superseded a quest for truth in many quarters. Alice Miller, in her classic "Drama of the Gifted Child," said that the opposite of depression -- which she saw as the flatness or absence of real feeling -- was not happiness, but rather vitality. Vitality, as she saw it, was the capacity and practice of experiencing all shades of feeling, and it was, as its Latin roots tell, part of the core of being alive.

As part of this culture, I'm also part of planning a two- or three-day fest for Memorial Day weekend that speaks of grilling outdoors and the beginning of a spell of beach weather. But this year, when positive psychology is worrying me up the kazoo -- am I having an allergic reaction? -- the very words of the holiday, Memorial Day, conjure up a central reason for worry that transcends this coming day or days of supposed commemoration to war veterans and to the wish to halt war in general. It moves me to consider the larger issue of things and events losing not only meaning but the merit of being studied in depth.

Take a 5th grade class studying the Civil War, one of the bloodiest on our soil and the most divisive, something we might study if we want to understand the vicious and venomous attitudes between people who disagree politically. (Now here's a concept!) Consider giving the students different parts to play so it goes like this. One plays a Confederate soldier and gets the Southern side of things or aspects of parts of that side. And one is slave and one is a slave owner, and they read letters and get costumes and get to sort of walk in the shoes of another and learn more about the stories.

Memory, as we can "remember" from a few paragraphs above, is not only the act of remembering but of reviving memory. The idea, then, for me is that any psychology that doesn't go through the seas of mixed feelings and ambivalence that exist in all of us will give us a superficial, forced sense of scripted well-being, which can be one more fad in the need to conform to something we take as the ultimate solution to the complexities of being human.

If we are to get more fit in terms of our emotions, the feelings that ultimately determine which thinking we choose to follow or whether we can think at all, we need memory, and we need access to all the feelings inside so we can integrate not only on the outside but the inside as well.

I'm using a part of this holiday coming up to remind myself about how going through tough feelings can be a much more grounded and sane way of resolving conflict than gliding above it all.