Thanks for the memories

One of my pet hates (and they are increasing as I become more of a grumpy old man) is when writers, movie makers and others who seek to entertain the milling masses get the history or the story wrong.

I refuse to read Dan Brown for that reason: he was just too sloppy by far and historical fiction needs to have the historical bit right.

So the makers of Robin Hood were messing with the wrong person when I saw the film one wet afternoon last week. Not only that, but I happen to have been born and raised in Nottingham and have read pretty well all there is about the legend.

Don’t get me wrong, I really liked the movie. Russell and Cate were fabulous and the high action meant I needed a nap afterwards to recover. At least they weren’t wearing tights and the longbows weren’t made of aluminium!

Robin Hood is legend rather than fact, although there is some interesting historical evidence to support the idea of such a rogue or even rogues at the time. But you would have thought that the makers of the movie would at least have stuck to the legend rather than getting it almost completely wrong.

I won’t go into details, but Robin was Loxley and he never went to the crusades with his ‘merry men’. Even worse, they got the real history regarding Kings Richard and John wrong too. Sad really, but then Hollywood has a habit (like governments, whatever their ilk) of rewriting history.

But who can blame the movie moguls? They’re human aren’t they? And rewriting history (and by that I mean memory and our version of reality) is part of the human condition.

Memory is a very tricky thing and remarkably unreliable, as countless experiments have shown. It is distorted by all sorts of things, not least of all by the fact that we interpret reality to fit our values and attitudes (our holy cows; things we hold dear) and then that distortion is stored as memory, which we take to be gospel. And we do this quite unconsciously, out of our awareness – at least most of the time!

It’s quite serendipitous that over the past week I’ve had three conversations with quite different people about this human trait, although for different reasons. How on earth can we change behaviours that get us into trouble if we can’t admit the truth to ourselves? How can we ever hold up the mirror and look at ourselves honestly given our propensity to misinterpret? The prospect of improvement and confronting our ‘negative’ self and habits, all of which are operating unconsciously, just seems hopeless. But it’s not.

It does require a bit of hard work, though. It needs us to be constantly aware, or what psychologists (and Buddhists have known about for centuries) call mindfulness: being in the moment. This means being aware of what you are doing and thinking, not blindly behaving out of habit.

This is especially important when we are in situations that often turn out badly or when we are repeating self-defeating or negative behaviours. It requires us to recognise that we do distort our memories of events and our perceptions to suit ourselves.

By doing this it means we can take a softer line on things, not be so dogmatic and, most of all, listen. It enables us to be less argumentative and to understand that everyone has a point of view that is relevant to them.

As F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “Wisdom is the ability to hold two competing ideas in your head at the same time and still function.” It is fundamental to reconciliation. Now wouldn’t that be a wonderful thing to foster?

Dr Stewart Hase is an Adjunct Fellow with Southern Cross University and a consultant psychologist.

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