Getting What You Want By Revising What You Had: Justifying Our Lives Away, Pt 3

Continuing with our series on Self-Justification (part one, part two), we come to a subject […]

David Zahl / 9.9.11

Continuing with our series on Self-Justification (part one, part two), we come to a subject of particular relevance this week: memory. Our text, as you’ll recall, is the excellent Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) by Elliot Aronson and Carol Tavris.

Have you ever reminisced with a friend or family member about an event, only to find that you have two contradictory recollections? It can be harmless – e.g. what color shirt someone was wearing on our 10th birthday – or it can be painful – you were clearly mother’s favorite child vs. No, you were.

These things don’t have to be in the distant past. I attended a church service a few years ago in which a preacher spoke, regretfully, about refusing to marry an inter-religious couple early in his ministry. The couple also happened to be an interracial one. He went on at length about how his decision illustrated a profound lack of wisdom and love, how fortunately an older minister down the road immediately agreed to do the wedding. Sadly the couple never darkened the door of the preacher’s church ever again (despite the groom having been raised there), etc. Afterwards, a few of us went to dinner, including one guy who had begrudgingly visited the church that evening to support a friend who was playing music in the service. He was a former member who had left a few years prior – not exactly a fan of the preacher in question. I asked, perhaps obnoxiously, what he had thought of the sermon. “I was offended that the preacher doesn’t believe in interracial marriage.” Say what?! It was a blatant misremembrance – the preacher had said the exact opposite only an hour beforehand – yet this guy sincerely believed it to be true. What was going on? Aronson and Tavris explain things this way:

When two people produce entirely different memories of the same event, observers usually assume that one of them is lying. Of course, some people do invent or embellish stories to manipulate or deceive their audiences, as James Frey notably did with his bestseller A Million Little Pieces. But most of us, most of the time, are neither telling the truth nor intentionally deceiving. We aren’t lying; we’re self-justifying. All of us, as we tell our stories, add details and omit inconvenient facts; we give the tale a small, self-enhancing spin; that spin goes over so well that the next time we add a slightly more dramatic embellishment; we justify that little white lie as making the story better and clearer — until what we remember may not have happened that way, or even may not have happened at all.

In this way, memory becomes our personal, live-in, self-justifying historian. Social psychologist Anthony Greenwald once described the self as being ruled by a “totalitarian ego” that ruthlessly destroys information it doesn’t want to hear and, like all fascist leaders, rewrites history from the standpoint of the victor. But whereas a totalitarian ruler rewrites history to put one over on future generations, the totalitarian ego rewrites history to put one over on itself. History is written by the victors, and when we write our own histories, we do so just as the conquerors of nations do: to justify our actions and make us look and feel good about ourselves and what we did or what we failed to do. If mistakes were made, memory helps us remember that they were made by someone else. If we were there, we were just innocent bystanders.

At the simplest level, memory soothes out the wrinkles of dissonance by enabling the confirmation bias to hum along, selectively causing us to forget discrepant, disconfirming information about beliefs we hold dear…

The book contains a number of examples of people willing to stake their entire identities on memories that, while they believed them to be true, turned out to be entirely false. They had deceived themselves, sometimes consciously, most of the time not. Perhaps this is what makes shows like Law and Order so compelling: we know what various people think/say happened, but what actually happened? It’s more than simply the Rashomon effect (though it’s that too), self-justification subordinates (and distorts) memory. Ironically, this might be one of the factors that makes the New Testament appear so authentic to some and so unreliable to others. I’ve always considered the little contradictions in the various accounts to confirm the truth of the events, rather than contradict them. That is, if the recollections therein didn’t contain some misremembrances, they might indeed be fabricated. The discrepancies instead make total sense in light of what the Bible itself says about the comprehensiveness of self-justification. ANYWAY, back to Aronson and Tavris and perhaps the most devastating section of the memory chapter:

For most people, the self-concept is based on a belief in change, improvement, and growth. For some of us, it’s based on a belief that we have changed completely; indeed, the past self seems like an entirely different person. When people have had a religious conversion, survived a disaster, suffered through cancer, or recovered from an addiction, they often feel transformed; the former self, they say, is ‘not me.’…

What happens, though, if we only think we have improved but actually haven’t changed at all? Again, memory to the rescue. In one experiment, Michael Conway and Michael Ross had 106 undergraduates take a study-skills improvement program that, like many such programs, promised more than it delivered. At the start, the students rated their study skills and then were randomly assigned to take the course or be put on a waiting list. The training had absolutely no effect on their study habits or grades. How, then, did the students justify the waste of time and effort? Three weeks later, when asked to recall as accurately as possible their own initial skills evaluation, they misremembered their skills as being far worse than they had stated at the outset, which allowed them to believe they had improved when they actually had not changed at all. Six months later, when asked to recall their grades in that course, they misremembered that, too, believing their grades to have been higher than they were. The students who stayed on the waiting list for the skills program, having expended no effort, energy or time, felt no cognitive dissonance and had nothing to justify. Having no need to distort their memories, they remembered their abilities and recent grades accurately.

Conway and Ross called this self-serving memory distortion “getting what you want by revising what you had.” On the larger stage of the life cycle, many of us do just that: We misremember our history as being worse than it was, thus distorting our perception of how much we have improved, to feel better about ourselves now. Of course, all of us do grow and mature, but generally not as much as we think we have…

False memories allow us to forgive ourselves and justify our mistakes, but sometimes at a high price: an inability to take responsibility for our lives. An appreciation of the distortions of memory, a realization that even deeply felt memories might be wrong, might encourage people to hold their memories more lightly, to drop the certainty that their memories are always accurate, and to let go of the appealing impulse to use the past to justify problems of the present. If we are to be careful about what we wish for because it might come true, we must also be careful which memories we select to justify our lives, because then we will have to live by them.

Certainly one of the most powerful stories that many people wish to live by is the victim narrative…

As if sanctification wasn’t a touchy enough issue already… Surely memory distortion shapes the way folks think about their moral/spiritual development. I know it does for me. Maybe you’ve heard someone give their testimony multiple times? And each time it gets a little more colorful? I certainly know I’ve been guilty of embellishing. Of course, some might say that the mark of a genuinely holy person is that they cease to think of themselves in those terms – they cease to think about themselves as much, period. This being the paradox of Christian growth: concern about maturity almost always betrays a lack of it. But here I am, talking about sanctification when justification is the issue at hand/head/heart.

What’s particularly interesting about this final portion is that people with a more negative self-image operate just as much along self-justifying lines as those with higher self-esteem. It’s not just a phenomenon that applies to those we might consider arrogant, or with too high an opinion of themselves. The self-loathing “ego” looks for confirmation for its (false) belief just as much as the self-aggrandizing one does its (equally false) belief. Just try cheering someone up who’s depressed with a litany of encouraging “facts.” Regardless of how true or accurate your words may be, you’ll soon find yourself up against a brick wall of revision. Which are merely justifications for the bad feeling/poor sense of self. “They only said that to be nice.”

All this to say, once again, that it might be no coincidence that the Christian faith is built on the notion of “justification by grace through faith.” Our most formative memories, both the positive and not-so-positive ones, are shot through with legal strategizing, whether we like it or not. Fortunately, justified sinners make terrific psychotherapy patients. The freedom of the Gospel is freedom to look at one’s past (maybe even dream about one’s future) apart from internal censorship committees. There’s permission to engage with the truth of/about oneself in all its dissonant glory. And if we can’t let go of our illusions, if they prove to be more powerful than we are, don’t forget: we are not ultimately dealt with according to our memories. Or our revisions of those memories. (Jeremiah 31:34, Hebrews 8:12).


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13 responses to “Getting What You Want By Revising What You Had: Justifying Our Lives Away, Pt 3”

  1. Ken says:

    Terrific stuff as always, Dave. I bought the Kindle version of the book after your first post. Some day I’m even going to read it!

  2. Jim McNeely says:

    This is such a great series; I have to get that book. I think the great insight here is that we don’t have to press hard to make the case that flesh = self-justification. Self-justification is our first knee-jerk response in every case, from sewing fig leaves on to me sitting here now writing this so someone will think I’m smart or something. It is a titanic shift to say that Jesus is not only just (great moral teacher) but the justifier (Rom 3:26). It is no small thing to let go of the power of justice in my life, to stop grasping for justice myself.

    We see this in more crass examples as well – a murderer had a bad childhood. However, a great deal of our mental energy ALL THE TIME EVERY DAY is spent figuring out how to orchestrate and tell the story of our own justness.

    Why are we driven to do this? Justice implies there is one who harms, and one harmed. Power lies with the one harmed – this is why unforgiveness is so delicious. We love to wield that stone! It is not only that we are ashamed, but that we love the power. (Much more here: Derrida and Forgiveness.

    The forbidden is not desirable only in its fruity tastiness, but in its power to make one wise, like God. If we release the power to justify ourselves, if we acknowledge that justice does not stand on our side, we lose this much desired power. Thus we are driven to self-justify. This really is what “the flesh” is – it is so much deeper than just dreaming about naked cheerleaders or something. If we allow Jesus to be our justifier, He encroaches on our own godlikeness, and we really love that kind of power. He is taking away our tattered but cherished blanket that we love.

    • John Zahl says:

      …”we don’t have to press hard to make the case that flesh = self-justification. Self-justification is our first knee-jerk response in every case, from sewing fig leaves on to me sitting here now writing this so someone will think I’m smart or something. It is a titanic shift to say that Jesus is not only just (great moral teacher) but the justifier (Rom 3:26).”

      What a great comment Jim!

  3. Jim McNeely says:

    Thanks John. How many Zahl’s are there anyway? Are you guys all related?

  4. Ken says:

    How many Zahl’s are there anyway? Are you guys all related?

    LOL. I’m reminded of a New Yorker cartoon with a young kid at his father’s bedside saying, “Dad, wake up. They’ve discovered another Marsalis!”

    The more the better!

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