The Vietnam War (copy)

Ken Burns' "The Vietnam War" has caused painful memories to surface for many people who lived through it. 

Years ago I was guiding an older, terminally ill patient in a local hospital through life review. She went on colorfully about her childhood in Scotland, recollecting happy memories.

Then she came to her teenage years. She stopped abruptly with a look of dismay, heavy breathing and then weeping. A memory had come up for her that did not, could not, fit into her life’s narrative. It was too painful.

Likewise a Vietnam vet is still tormented by scenes he witnessed 50 years ago. The visual memory is seared into his psyche. He can’t talk about it. The two-week showing of Ken Burns’ “The Vietnam War” on PBS raised troubling memories for him and many in our generation.

Last month this column spoke of how elders can draw on memory for inspiration and resources for present living. Yet many of us who are older have things we have sealed off because the memory is too painful. Some memories, psychologists know, are so fraught that we press them down beneath the level of conscious recollection. These come out in irrational fears or are acted out in some behavior patterns we can’t understand: “Where did that come from?”

Other memories stay with us in some dark corner of our psyche. We know they’re there, but we try hard to keep them under lock and key. These could be memories of childhood or spousal abuse, or a hurtful betrayal, a crash or crime scene that branded our mind, a violation caused by racial hatred, a mistake that we would give anything to be able to take back. Many people carry in their memory bank disturbing images that have never healed.

Such memories are injuries, sometimes called “moral injuries” because they damage our connection with our true selves, with other people, with the goodness of life itself. We call them our “demons." They entrap us in the past and seep bitterness into our present.

They can be helped. In author Annie Dillard’s words, we can “ride the monsters deeper down” and find peace and reconnection. How can we do that?

You will discern whether you should undertake this work alone in meditation, or with a pastor or counselor, or, in cases of extreme injury, with a professional therapist. Just as there are different levels of illness and medical treatment, there are different levels of emotional or psychic injury that you need to treat differently. The honesty demanded by memory work can cause pain itself.

When you bring yourself to undertake it, the process of healing memory can follow a course like this, not once and done, but repeatedly until it becomes an orientation or pattern of your life.

1. Bring into your mind the memory or wound, painful as it is. As the memory plays out in your mind, acknowledge it, even bring yourself to welcome it, examine it in detail. Feel again the anger, grief, pain, all the emotion packed into the memory for you. Ride the monster deeper down, as Dillard said. But remember: You are the rider, you are NOT the memory!

2. Resist analyzing it. Stop blaming yourself or someone else. No excusing. No figuring out. Just the thing itself, raw and laden with feeling or emotion. Do not rationalize it.

3. Experiencing your own personal pain, let it flow into the pain of the whole world like a river into the sea. Let it flow into the greater ocean of suffering. Turn it over to the ocean. Begin to let it go. Let your memory be overwhelmed by the infinitely greater reality in which we all live, which contains not only our own pain and loss but also ... goodness. Touch the goodness and gradually let it embrace you.

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4. Form a prayer or declaration of forgiveness for yourself, or the person or persons you have blamed for causing you the pain, or reality itself for being broken and allowing suffering and heartbreak. Say the forgiveness out loud — to yourself, to anyone else involved, to the world.

Here is the rest of the quotation from Annie Dillard, from her book “Teaching a Stone to Talk.”

Her sentences are not an easy read, but they are worth pondering:

"In the deeps are the violence and terror of which psychology has warned us. But you ride these monsters deeper down if you drop with them farther off the world’s rim, you find what our sciences cannot locate or name, the substrate, the ocean or matrix which buoys the rest, which gives goodness its power for good, and evil its power for evil, the unified field: our complex and inexplicable caring for one another, and for our life together here. This is given. It is not learned."

The memory may not heal at once, and it may never heal completely, but it should begin. For that to happen, this kind of memory work must become a regular practice. Riding the memory and feeling the emotions, not judging, giving over the pain, forgiving — these become “laws of our being.”

Instead of growing older and more bitter, you will grow older and more free, more connected with yourself, with others, with the world itself. Everybody’s life narrative has losses, hurts and diminishments. But it should be a connected story and one that you can affirm and be thankful for.

The goal of the healing of memory is to overcome obstacles to saying “It’s all good” and to be at home with ourselves again.

Bert Keller and Bill Simpson write the occasional column, “Aging for Amateurs.” Keller, a retired minister and bioethicist, wrote this installment. Comments, questions and suggestions are welcome at

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