Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Finding Compassion when the stories differ

The last two posts have examined our memory. First, there is the issue of losing and storing memory, and second is the issue of whether our memories are “true.” The question now is what do we do with the knowledge that our brains are not the source of all our memories, and those that we have may not always be true?

While the issue with memory permeates all of modern society, it is exemplified perfectly by the legal profession. The legal profession is one of stories. And when it comes to stories, family law is at the top of the list.  Everyone has their own story in family law, and usually the two parties have stories that drastically differ. Both sides tell their story. Most of the time, each side assumes the other one is lying, and the neutral people (evaluators, judges, child’s representative) assume they are both lying.

But what if they are both telling their truth? What if their memories are exactly what they are telling the court? Would our impression of them change? Would the system have to change? 

As professionals, do we have an obligation to inform the client that the other party may not be lying? Do we have an obligation to question our own client’s views of the truth? Does that border on unethical? Should we be concerned about what our ethical rules require if it does?

The greatest lesson we can take from recognizing the possibility that our memories are fallible is that we can understand that other people may have misguided memories as well. As with most aspects of life, we can use this as a sword, or we can use it to have more empathy and compassion for others. Once we recognize how malleable memory is, we can understand how others may remember events differently than we remember them. We can be willing to let go of our own story.

As professionals, we can understand that getting caught up in our own client’s story as though it were gospel may not be the best way to handle a case. As colleagues, we can discuss cases and situations with more perspective, understanding that there may be more to the story than we first perceive. As fellow human beings, we may be able to hold multiple stories, even if our own memory remains intact with only one of those stories.

Most importantly, in a time when we talk about being so divided, divided as never before, we can start to understand how other people may see the world differently than we do. It is nice to think that facts can change attitudes. It is nice to believe that if we just provide enough data, we can win a case, or we can win an argument with someone with whom we disagree. But sometimes, the stories are too ingrained. (Here is a link to a great article on the topic). Sometimes, our own stories are too ingrained. And sometimes, what we think are facts are just our stories, our patterns, our memories that have been conditioned over time.

So now what? Can we believe anything as truth? This question is much bigger than this blog, and certainly than this post. But the first step is simple, if not easy, a theme familiar to this blog. The first step is to recognize that we all have our stories, and those with whom we interact have their own stories. Thus, instead of jumping to a conclusion that someone is simply wrong, we can recognize that peoples’ truths may be different than our own. It means we can have a bit more understanding when we talk to them.

Can we convince family law litigants that both of them have valid stories? Maybe not. But can we convince ourselves that we should take a second look at other people before making assumptions about their views on the world? I think we can. Then, when our memories appear from our bodies while doing some physical asana, we can also recognize those are merely part of the story. We need not judge our memories, and we need not fear them just like we need not judge others based on the memories they hold dear.

What do you think we can learn from validating other peoples’ memories? What can we learn about ourselves? What can we learn about the world?


© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved


  1. Fantastic posting on a topic I've been thinking about a lot lately. Also wondering how much the EGO is involved in the "truth" of our personal stories. Very important stuff to ponder. If I remind myself that we are all just people on a path with varying degrees of life tools, it is so much easier to have compassion for everyone's story. Truth has no more value than false. All is equal. Just my thoughts these days. SO glad I've found your blog!

  2. Thanks, Jan. And yes, the ego certainly plays a role, but I am just fascinated by how much science is finally catching up to yoga teachings of old. I wonder if this is a chicken/egg debate. Does our ego shape how we remember the past / view events, or does our memory shape our ego? My hunch is that it is a 2-way street.