You grew up with the happiest childhood imaginable. You did! You really did! Or at least you might have. And you know the bumper sticker that says, “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood”? I’ve learned it speaks the truth, though not in the way I always thought.
A few months ago I devised for myself a new and helpful meditation. It probably isn’t my creation, but if I heard of it before I’m not sure where. Meditation may be too strong a word; visualization or fantasy might fit better. The basic technique involves imagining a better childhood and family life than I actually experienced.
On my older, less visited blog, I’ve written often about my dismal childhood. It’s tempting to outline it here, but in essence all unhappy childhoods are the same. The details are not important to my current topic. What’s more, in the course of my life I’ve spent far too much time reliving the tragic drama of my upbringing. As a result, my bereaved and abused childhood has become a kind of background legend to explain my life and personality. Although it is an unflattering trait, I admit to building a story of myself as a Ruined Child. My aunt tells me that at my youngest ages I was an exceedingly affectionate and happy toddler. But in my mind, at least, bad luck and cruelty crushed that innate sweetness.
So what is my visualization? I picture a completely different upbringing. The destruction of my childhood was set in motion when my father insisted on moving to Los Angeles, where he had discovered ‘swinging’ and ‘free love.’
My mother, a proper midwestern girl, hated the place and the lifestyle for which my dad yearned, and refused to go along. In real life, they divorced. In my ‘meditation’, they reached a compromise and moved to Berkeley instead.
My father enjoyed the liberal, collegiate environment, and my mother managed to steer him away from the orgies. Rather than dwelling as a bitter left-winger in a conservative neighborhood, my father became a happy radical Berkeley professor. Rather than dying in a psychiatric ward, my mother continued her social work career by helping the mentally ill. She only worked half-time, however, and was home every day after school. I’d arrive at our house and sweep through the door, laughing and jostling with my friends. Smiling broadly, my mom would set cookies and milk on the Formica counter, while patting me lovingly on the head.
In other words, in my ‘meditation’ I picture a childhood essentially opposite to what really happened. I build the scene out in my mind, visualizing the neighborhood with its huge leafy sycamores, our 1920′s vintage house paneled by redwood wainscoting, my affectionate mother with her floral apron. I smell her chocolate chip cookies and feel her fingers mussing my hair. With repetition it begins to feel as ‘real’ as any ‘true’ memory.
Some believe that the brain can’t tell the difference between imagination and reality in memory. Taken to its extreme this is an overly simplistic view, but it seems to have at least some validity. On the one hand, I suspect the brain holds traumatic experiences in something similar to what is technically termed implicit memory; such embodied trauma probably can’t be overwritten by imagination. However, the narrative stories we remember may well be subject to revision.
So if I visualize my fantasy childhood until it begins to feel real, perhaps my mind will relinquish its ruined child identity, and move toward a sense of being a beloved son. In fact, that seems to be happening. Now, whenever an agonizing memory from my actual childhood arises, I replace it with pictures from my happy imagined childhood. Whereas thinking about my early years used to leave me sorrowful, I now actually feel cheered. A sense of myself as a loved being is growing within.
Does it matter that the memory I’m reliving is fictional? As long as I don’t reject the lessons and richness of my actual life, or lose myself in denial, I see little potential for harm. Why not change history, and build a happy childhood?