The Positive Power of Memory

Memorial Day is a time to practice celebrating life even as we honor and remember loss.

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The Positive Power of Memory

Memorial Day is an emotionally complex holiday. On this day, we remember those who laid down their lives in the service of their country, their community, their values. We honor their sacrifice by remembering their names, their stories and the freedoms we enjoy because of their bravery.

We also celebrate life on Memorial Day, gathering with friends and family to relish the sun-soaked joy of time spent together. For some, there is a straight line between the loss of those whose memories we hold close on Memorial Day and the barbecues and beach visits we look forward to sharing with others. For others, the military aspects of the day take a back seat to the positive feelings we get when we come together to enjoy free time with people we love. 

No matter how Memorial Day feels for you, its juxtaposition of mourning and celebration is profound. 

Researchers who study memory understand how the emotional quality of a memory—whether it is positive or negative—affects the way in which we remember it. “The brain handles positive and negative information in different hemispheres,” Clifford Nass, a professor of communications at Stanford University told The New York Times. He went on to say that negative emotions require more thinking and more mental processing than positive ones—which leads us to remember negative events more clearly than we hold onto positive memories. 

Understanding this might help us hold the opposing qualities of Memorial Day in healthy proportion this year. Contemplating the devastating loss of a loved one to war asks a lot of our brains, even though it is important, if challenging terrain to navigate. But maybe we can also spend some time this week waking our minds up to the opposite feeling—the blessing of drawing near to those who mean the most to us. What would it look like if we more intentionally processed the positive feelings—small and large—of a day off from work, spent with people we love? 

Try this: Fold a piece of paper into two columns. On one side, note some feelings, memories, ideas or images you associate with Memorial Day and the ways we do (or should) honor fallen heroes. On the other, list things you feel grateful for in the here and now, feeling open to explore these feelings on this day of freedom.

In a week, a month, or a year from now, what will you remember from Memorial Day 2018? Your brain is working on that even as we speak.

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