Our legal system provides abundant evidence of the potential pitfalls wrought by relying on memory recall. While eye witness testimony is often used in criminal cases, its reliability has long been open to question. Of the 21 cases on The Innocence Network’s* 2011 exoneration report, 19 wrongful convictions involved eyewitness testimony. This is consistent with statistics that indicate more than three-quarters of convictions later overturned by DNA evidence relied on faulty eyewitness evidence. This is nothing new. For his 1932 book, Convicting the Innocent, Yale law professor Edwin Borchard studied 65 wrongful convictions and found that eyewitness misidentification was the leading cause of wrongful convictions.
But in our personal lives? Of course there’s no faulty memory! Those were the good old days! You know, everyone was blissful, birds chirped their happy songs under a sapphire sky, streams were tap-water clear and chock full of fish fighting for space, and all jobs paid beaucoup bucks. Aah. The good old days.
Funny how that works. If it’s something you’re not emotionally attached to though, say, a past job, you probably don’t have any problem whatsoever remembering how much of a jerk the boss was, how you were underpaid, or how much the hours sucked. But you sure do miss some of your co-workers. Maybe even stay in touch with a few. So—the job sucked. The people, maybe not so much. Why aren’t they intertwined? Because our brains do a fantastic job of siloing, categorizing, and filing. Job = suck. Tom, down the hall = cool guy. Even though Tom was part of a sucky workplace.
And oh, that boss. You know—the jerk. His Achilles’ heel is forgetting the path that took him to the throne. While it’s good to be king, it would be smart to know what the rest of the realm is up to. The boss doesn’t have to be able to perform every job in the company, but better well recognize its purpose, significance, and place in the organization. The further you climb up the professional ladder, the more likely it is that you will grow out of touch with day-to-day workplace realities. I challenge the CEO of any Fortune 100 company to show me how to copy, staple, collate, or bind a document.
The sense of entitlement seems to grow on the ascent. Memories fade and expectations that stuff just magically happens take hold. And, surprise, stuff usually does get done. But not because the king demands it. It gets done for personal reasons. Either the person doing the work needs the income (and perks that might come with it), or they hold strong convictions about what they are doing and a fervent belief in the mission (volunteering is a prime example). The reason is in there, lurking. Ain’t no one gonna wax your car for you just because they’re bored.
In our personal lives, we tend to think that absence makes the heart grow fonder, but only because we’re apt to reminisce about the good stuff and rationalize the remainder. No one remembers the work. We forget the fears, the tears, the longings, and the heartache. Depending on how you see it, selective memory is either one of life’s great gifts or a cruel mistress.
Further thickening the fog, we remember things as we choose, not always as they were. History is written and rewritten every day. And unlike 5,000 years ago where we have perhaps only a sole accounting, we now have thousands of armchair historians regularly chiming in with their version of history. Including yours. And mine.
Bottom line: We see and remember what we want to see and remember. Live your life in a way that sets you apart from the ordinary. Give someone a reason to remember you in a way that is impossible to do without a smile. That’s where the surprising magic lives.
* The Innocence Network is an affiliation of organizations that provides pro bono legal and investigative services to individuals seeking to prove their innocence of crimes for which they have been convicted and working to redress the causes of wrongful convictions.
Except from the Book: Dear You, Live! Love, Life
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