Let’s put it this way.
Life is a sequence of answers to the question “What’s going on?”
We look around through our senses until we do something — either act in the world or conclude that nothing interesting is happening, and go into our heads somewhere.
Then we snap back to square 1, ask “what’s going on?” and the cycle starts again.
The thing is that, over time, we don’t come at the question totally fresh. If we did, we could not act very effectively in the world. Instead, the mind looks at the present, filters it through past experiences until it finds a schema that vaguely fits, and then interprets the present accordingly.
The conscious mind has access to this process through our memories, which are records of events that had a particularly significant impact on us. And it’s through them that we can come to reconstruct a picture of what we are and how we function.
To put it another way: we all have dementia and PTSD.
Someone with dementia will talk to you as if you’re their long-lost child, because they’re filtering the present through the past in a way that’s faulty enough for us to notice.
Someone with PTSD will react to a loud bang outside by jumping out of bed and thinking they’re still in the trenches — and when their wife comes and tries to calm them down, they go “Jemima?! What are you doing in Vietnam?!”
That’s just an exaggerated version of what’s happening to us all the time. The rest of us simply try to rein it in a little.
So now, I’m going to take my early years as an example, to illustrate how this process works.
From the ages of 1 to 4, I was in the Catalina Mountains in Arizona.
My first memories are just tiny slices — almost still images.
The stars in the sky at night. The howl of coyotes. Blue skies and green cactuses – walking between them with my father.
So the story of my life at that point can be summed up like this:
What’s going on?
Ooh! Something pretty!
Is it a lot of stars? Is it a coyote? Is it the Great Big Blue? Is it a cactus? No? Oh my God, it’s something new! Amazing! What is it?
The second major memory goes like this.
My parents are at the dinner table with some other people. I toddle over. I see my father’s glass, and think that it contains apple juice. I like apple juice. I pick it up, drink it, and get quite a surprise. It tastes very bitter. Turns out it’s beer.
My theory is that this stuck in my mind because it was my first major experience of coming across something that I thought was good which actually turned out to be bad.
Thing is, everyone around me laughed when I spit it out in disgust and fear, so I immediately knew I wasn’t in any real danger. So the memory is a fond one.
The third major memory is the first that I remember extremely vividly, as an extended scene.
It’s Christmas Eve, 1993. I am 4 years old.
We had stopped by my father’s studio on Venice Boulevard in Culver City, Los Angeles.
It’s night time. We take our dog Alfie — a very sweet and shaggy Old English Sheepdog — for a walk in the park out front.
We re-enter the studio. I am holding the leash.
My mother says: “Remember, you have to close the door before you let Alfie off the leash.”
And I was like: Ehh… I already have the leash in my hand. Why don’t I just let him off the leash, and then close the door? That’s much more efficient, isn’t it?
She might not literally have been saying it at that exact moment, but the point is, I remember having that information at the time.
So I let Alfie off the leash, and, predictably, he darts right back out the door. Because he’s an animal who is used to roaming around the desert mountains and is now being locked inside a dark box (i.e. house) all day, and if given half the chance will naturally do anything he can to go back outside.
My mother and I run after him to see an old Chrysler with its lights out slam straight into Alfie as he’s halfway across the street. I remember being surprised that he didn’t go flying off in an arc. Instead, he goes rigid and slides in circles across the road, as I turn my head to follow him, left to right. He comes to a standstill. The car races off.
The next thing I remember, we’re driving back to the warehouse from the animal hospital. I know I must have been much smaller back then, because the bottom of the windshield was above my line of sight.
My mother is trying to console me. She must have gotten to the point where she started saying: “It’s not your fault.”
I don’t remember my exact thoughts, but I remember the feeling with absolute precision. The current English word for it is Guilt, though the following words capture some of it: shame, self-loathing, mulish stubbornness, etc.
To put it into words, what I was thinking at the time was something vaguely like this:
No. No. No. You don’t get it. You don’t understand. None of you understand. You weren’t there inside my head. I was, and I remember. I knew I was supposed to shut the door before letting the dog off the leash. If I had thought about it for a split second, it would have been immediately obvious why, and Alfie would still be alive. If I had just been more obedient and listened to my betters, Alfie would still be alive.
Next thing you’re gonna tell me is that I’m just 4 years old — I don’t have the relevant attention span and self-organizational capacity to be relied upon to do basic coordination tasks with any degree of competence. That’s all fine and well. But I know that that’s bullshit. I remember. I was perfectly capable of the task. And I failed.
And I won’t hear a word about it not being my responsibility. This isn’t someone dying on the other side of the world. I had the leash in my hand. You literally cannot make an analogy more precise than this. A leash is a rope that you tie to something that cannot be trusted to make its own decisions. A hand is the primary means we have to act in the world. I had the leash in my hand. I knew I wasn’t supposed to drop it. It was my responsibility. It was on me. And I fucked it up. I ‘dropped the ball’. Except this wasn’t a game. This was real life, and I dropped the leash, and now Alfie is dead.
And the more you try to tell me this is not my fault, the less I will trust you. Any of you. None of you seem to understand this basic point. If you can do something about it, and you don’t have to go very far out of your way to do it, then you should do something about it. And you literally cannot get less far out than the palm of your non-paralysed hand. So if you keep talking like this, then I will be forced to conclude that I am actually alone in this world — that the rest of you are either in denial, too stupid to understand, or you really are all a bunch of zombies.
We’ll stop there. That should furnish us with all we need to understand human behaviour.
Those three groups of memories represent three pathways in the mind.
In any given moment, we “snap back to reality” and ask “what’s going on?”
And the mind, exactly like water trickling downhill until it finds a place of rest, will cycle through the available options.
What’s going on? Is it something pretty? No? Is it something dangerous? No? Have I killed my dog? No? You suuure? OK. Well then, I guess I’d better move on to the next memory. And then the next, and then the next……. wait, none of these work? For flip’s sake…. I guess I better pay attention and open up a new pathway. Uggghhhhh, though. Do you know how much sugar I’m gonna need for that? You’d better feed me a candy bar the size of the moon after this, y’hear? Otherwise I’mma throw a supernova of a temper trantrum!
I thought of making a visual representation of this, like a flowchart. But I’m (a) too lazy, and (b) the tiny, tiny, tiiiiiiiny bit I know about topology has messed my mind up, so I end up picturing the weirdest shapes for it. (Also [c], I’m too arrogant, and keep thinking someone else will offer to make my mind map for me.)
And the point is, sometimes we get a little hung up on things. For most of my life, depending on just how much shit I’d been getting and how much I’d been letting it get to me, I would interpret every miniscule negative signal as a cue to go as deep into Headspace 3 as possible.
What’s going on? Someone’s looking at me funny. I must have killed my dog. No, wait, that can’t be true! So… maybe I killed their dog?
What’s going on? Oh, there’s been a landslide in Ecuador? Oh no — I’ve killed my dog!
What’s this now? The universe is going to die because of something to do with heat? Oh Gooooooooooooooooood — Alfiiieeeeeeeeeeeee I’m sorrryryyyyryryyryryryryryryryyy!
And as each of these new situations is filed under “Killed my dog”, the proportion of my mind taken up by guilt and regret and self-hatred grows steadily larger and larger and larger until I’m about 2% “this is pretty”, 0.000001% “maybe I’m in danger”, and one million and ten percent “dead dog”.
Some notes of caution.
Our memories are faulty. I have no clue if my mom had indeed told me to shut the door first. She says she didn’t. I, obviously, don’t believe her. So don’t take it too seriously, and never take it completely at face value.
The key point is that these things reveal the underlying tendencies of the mind. It’s not about the cactuses or the coyotes — it’s about my aesthetic tendency. It’s not about the apple juice and the beer — it’s about my threat perception. And it’s not about my… OK, fine, it actually is about my dead dog — fuck you.
Also, there’s really no need to keep going that far with this. You get diminishing returns with each subsequent memory. Me being who I am (and also “me being unemployed and having such busy friends”), I’ve gone through hundreds, maybe thousands of my childhood memories over the past couple of years and given them the full analysis (hence the weird topology of my mind map). Do as I say, not as I do, kids.
Also, please don’t get confused: this almost certainly hasn’t made me a more traumatised person than I was going to be anyway. The dog thing made me extremely cautious thereafter. I have shirked every responsibility I possibly could — I have a functioning body, so I should enjoy playing sports, but I didn’t because dropping the ball and disappointing my teammates was too traumatic. I enjoy studying — but I never studied for any tests because taking it seriously and then failing was too traumatic.
And the point is — if I hadn’t been that cautious from that early on, I would have screwed something up further down the line, and then that would be The Big Traumatic Memory I Have to Spend a Lifetime Dealing With.
Better I destroyed what I loved most in the world at the age of four than growing up a bit more free-wheelin’, taking the keys to my parents’ car when they weren’t looking, getting carried away blasting some tunes, failing to pay attention to the road for a split second, and then running over some other kid’s beloved dog. I’m honestly more comfortable with things this way around.
And if you’re wondering why I never went to therapy for any of this, I’ll explain in more detail some other time — but for now, just believe me when I say that it wouldn’t have made a damned bit of difference. The kind of therapist who would’ve actually made a dent in my guilt complex, in this day and age, I have never had the money to afford — and for fairly obvious reasons, no one took it upon themselves to book the appointment and cover the fee for me.
So instead, I tried to do it the old fashioned way, and sought out a spiritual teacher. Except, in this day and age, the kind of spiritual teacher who would’ve actually made a dent in my resentment is probably hiding in the Mariana Trench.
So, you know. I had to do it the new-fangled way and read some books. Zhuangzi laid it out real clear, and showed me that it was 命 — Fate. Destiny. Heavenly decree — both inside and outside. Spinoza taught me that it was determined by the absolute necessity of the divine nature — Aflie running out, the car without headlights speeding, and me dropping the leash.
Because none of us speak Ancient Chinese, and because I have a mischievous personality and enjoy nothing more than winding up my teachers, I have apparently decided to go for Spinoza’s pet peeve, and so I generally call it the will of God. And I like God. So if that’s how It wants to play it — fine. I can accept it.
So for now, I’m as over it as I can be. I will only be fully over it at my death. And I will be increasingly over it as I can fob off things I feel responsible for to other people whose eyes I’ve stared into and decided I can trust.
Last word on the topic. I know that feeling guilt for what happened is stupid. Because what do you think is gonna happen when I make it into Heaven and see Alfie? Do you think he’s gonna bark and bite me for killing him? Or do you think he’s going to jump all over me and attempt to lick every skin cell on my face? I’ll let you decide.