When I wrote this piece, I was questioning the idea that our experiences make us who we are; a belief that had, until then, provided me with both justification and reassurance. I’d come across the work of Kahneman who suggests that it is not an experience per se that we remember; what we remember is the meaning that we assign to that experience. I found this problematic. If we create the meaning, then we create the memory. And if we create the memory, then aren’t we in effect creating a truth? I was unsure how I could reconcile this truth – this created truth – with the truth telling demanded of writers of creative non-fiction. So, this piece is my reflection on the idea that it is not our experiences per se that mould us, but rather the stories that we tell ourselves about our lives that shape who we are. This is an idea I’ve also explored in a previous post on Sarah Polley’s documentary Stories We Tell.
‘I think I’ll sit down while I wait’, I say, though I’m not sure anyone is listening. My descent is not graceful – what hiking boots give by way of ankle protection, they sure as hell take away in flexibility. Limited ankle movement aside, I am now seated with only the thin fabric of my hi-tech, high-functioning, high-price trekking pants separating me from the damp earth.
I take a few deep breaths, trying to restore a sense of calm. I think about doing some of the ocean breathing that calms me in yoga class, but here on the mountain I feel intimidated and self-consciousness. I settle for quiet deep breaths instead.
I’m sitting about 700 metres from the top of Mount Kinabalu, the highest mountain between the Himalayas and New Guinea. My heart is racing, I’m lightheaded and I’m in that twilight zone where you don’t know whether you are going to throw up or not; you only know that neither option is a good one. Our quick ascent the day before has not given my body the time it needs to adjust to the change in altitude.
Our guide gestures for me to come, so I stand, shrug into my daypack and walk over to him. I see that the most of others have gone and it’s my turn next. The guide explains what is required. ‘Keep hold of the rope as you move around the rock. Keep your feet close to the base. Don’t go fast and don’t lean back. Falling off is not good. There is a sheer drop’.
He explains about the drop because I cannot see it. It is two thirty in the morning and it is pitch black. I can see only what my headlamp brings to life, my world reduced to the softly illuminated small arc in front of me. Standing as I am, close to a boulder which appears boundaryless, there isn’t much to see anyway. Nausea takes hold again, this time rising through my body. But it’s fear, not altitude, making me feel ill now. Not for the first time today, I question why I do this to myself. I say a prayer to a God I don’t believe in asking that I stay on the side of this mountain, that I do not fall off this rock. I do not mention the summit or getting there before sunrise. Survival will be sufficient.
It has been 15 years since I sat on the side of that mountain, and I still remember the experience so vividly. I was unwell for the duration of the climb, languishing all day at the back of the group with a woman named Brenda. Her partner, like mine, hovered close by until we gave them the ‘okay’ to hightail it up to the top without us. I did eventually summit, just not before sunrise.
That early morning climb pushed my boundaries and tested my resolve. And although I didn’t see the sun rise, I felt triumphant. I had battled and I had overcome. I was in my happy place on that mountain, though it wasn’t the mountain that made me happy; it was the experience. It is experiences, not things, that I most treasure.
I have always believed that we are the sum of our experiences. That each experience, no matter how small, would build on the previous one to create our ever-changing, ever-improving self, shaping what we value and curating how we see the world – the lens through which we filter, triage, and assess everything that we do, see and imagine.
My certainty in this belief was tested a few years ago. We’d been invited on another trek by two of our dear friends. They are about twenty years our senior and are my travel idols. We’d never travelled together before, and I was energised by the thought of spending two weeks soaking up their travel wisdom.
On about day five of the trek, after a particularly arduous day, our small group came together in the hostel dining room. As was the case on the previous evenings, our menu was set, so we only needed to order drinks. My French, though rudimentary, was sufficient to place my order. ‘Vin blanc, s’il vous plait?’ It was not meant to be a question, but my tentative approach had made it sound as such. It mattered not. The waitress responded with a nod and little smile before confirming ‘Oui madam’. I smiled too. It felt good to connect, even in a small way.
With my order taken, the waitress moved to my friend. He took his time scanning the drinks list. Tonic was his usual choice and though I know I heard him speak, I cannot be certain now if that is what he ordered; I was too absorbed by the bewildered look of the waitress. With the same tentative approach I’d used, I heard her ask ‘Say again, please’. My friend obliged, this time with more gusto and volume in his voice.
I saw her brow furrow and her eyes narrow. It was not that she didn’t hear, I thought, she didn’t understand. My friend gave a loud sigh before resigning himself to ‘just water’. The waitress turned and left the room. As she did, my friend exploded, ‘Christ, she doesn’t understand what I want’.
I was discomfited by the exchange. Embarrassed for my friend. Embarrassed for the waitress. Later, I would be embarrassed for my failure to call him out, but not then. In that moment, I only had one question. How can a person who has seen so much of the world be so unaware of their own place in it?
So here it was, a litmus test that boldly refuted my belief that we are a product of our experiences – that the more experiences we have, the more learned we become, the bigger our view of the world. The better the person we are.
I thought about the lens through which I see the world and I wondered if perhaps my friend saw things differently, that maybe he looked at the world not through a lens, but through a kaleidoscope. I imagined that with each experience he would rotate the tube and have an ever-changing pattern presented back to him, but the patterns he saw would be only reflected images bouncing off the mirrors inside. They would not encapsulate anything new, only that which was already present in the tube. Any new experiences would simply re-present his existing perceptions; they wouldn’t ever change it.
I didn’t draw that conclusion then. It has only been recently that I’ve come to understand that it is not the experience itself that is important, it is the meaning that we assign to it; learning comes from the story we tell ourselves about an experience.
Psychologist Daniel Kahneman explains that the decisions we make about how we react to things are based on our memories, not on our experiences. He talks of our two selves. There’s our Experiencing Self that only knows the present moment, moments that come and go leaving no trace, smashing our perception that every moment is precious. And then there’s our Remembering Self, the self that writes the story of our life and the self that creates the memories. It is these stories – these memories that we create – that give us our unique perspective. The Remembering Self thrives on the new, the novel and the significant. Things like being stuck on the side of a mountain, in the early hours of the morning.
My Mount Kinabalu adventure is a memory I treasure, although I am faintly amused by that as I write it. It doesn’t show me in the best light and, as a factual experience, it’s not all that interesting. But it is my story of the experience, and the meaning I have assigned to it is of a person who can deal with the uncomfortable and the unknown. A person who will persist even when they don’t want to. A person who will find moments of joy in the doing, no matter the outcome.
We all have a narrative. The stories we tell our self about our self. And just as those stories were borne of the experiences that have shaped us, they will go on to shape our future selves. Always present, though sometimes unseen, in every decision that we make.
Whatever memory we create, it is our story. Our truth as we know it. Our truth as we interpret it. It is our story to tell.
Bell, DA 1995, ‘Who’s afraid of Critical Race Theory’, University of Illinois Law Review, Vol. 1995, no. 4, pp. 893-910.
Bergson, H 2000 Creative Evolution, Electric Book Company, retrieved 1 August 2020, ProQuest Ebook Central.