Far from enjoying a public confession of my lowest moments and most tender vulnerabilities, I found relating these things slightly embarrassing. Maybe that sounds obvious, but some people enjoy relating these kinds of things.
Why share them at all, you may wonder. To tell you the truth, I believe it’s important to face down one’s embarrassment, to learn to stand face to face with the ugly bits of one’s personal history and own them. Besides, in my case, I’m genuinely not the person I used to be.
Memory is a function that constantly thwarts and baffles us, ruffles our feathers — but it also plays an integral part in our self-opinion. Some Buddhists believe that the ego is illusory, that it is an accumulation of “facts” drawn from memory (oftentimes of dubious accuracy), which we unconsciously, unknowingly assemble into a shape. That shape is “who we are”. Of course, it’s plain to see that “who we are” is many things to many people, even many things to ourselves, depending on our mood or the circumstances we find ourselves in.
I’m not proud of the bad things I’ve done, but neither am I truly embarrassed. I don’t regret having made mistakes. I regret the hurt I’ve caused others in my stupidity, of course. In a spirit of contrition, I’ve attempted to reward myself with a more fulfilling, more dedicated life in which I can test out and refine my personal ethics. I find a life in accordance with my personal ethics rewarding; and I find that rewarding myself has the knock-on effect of rewarding others.
It is through the constant rewarding of one’s own best instincts that we cultivate empathy. To deny oneself the belief, nay, the knowledge that change is inevitable, that one’s very self is a process, a flux rather than an entity — this is tantamount to self-mutilation. I think this is how people end up hating themselves.
Empathy, goodness, all the enjoyable and pleasant things about living (of which there are regrettably fewer than the bad ones) come from humanity’s ability to renew itself, to reinvigorate itself, to evolve and change and adapt. After all, we are organisms like any other. Except bankers.
Empathy is a skill, and a rewarding one at that. Cultivating empathy requires a sort of creative use of memory. We’ve got to remember the feeling of being lost at sea, the feeling of vulnerability and not knowing what the hell is going on, in order to truly understand the behaviour of others. It’s hard, I know. I’m the first to admit my hypocrisy: I take particular delight in watching two self-important yuppies with their noses stuck in iPhones and their ears stopped up with the latest disposable music almost crash into each other because neither was watching where they were going.
Everybody has memories they wouldn’t relate to just anybody. The fact that they’re so delicate, so embarrassing, makes them that much more special to relate. It’s precisely these bad memories that we serve like gifts to people who we want to love. Whether these memories threaten one’s idea of oneself as a “good person”, or whether they bring to mind old unresolved pain, we truly are like magnificent flowers growing out of the dung heap of our past when we share them.