On ‘making memories’, or letting them make us

‘Making memories’ has become a popular phrase in the past few years. I get why people use it – it’s about living deliberately and taking opportunities to enjoy every moment. But the phrase has always made me a little uncomfortable and recently I found myself pondering why that was. Over the past few weeks we’ve had a bout of the flu in our house, followed by Covid. It’s meant cancelling a couple of weeks’ worth of plans during some of the most splendid summer weather we have ever experienced!

I realised that the idea of ‘making memories’ can make us feel that our experience of life is not enough; that we have to create certain conditions for memories that are worth keeping. Tied up with the notion of FOMO (fear of missing out), it sells us the idea that certain experiences are worth more than others. If we can’t create an environment that’s beautiful, ideal or even extraordinary, our experiences are somehow inadequate. It’s an idea fuelled by the shiny experiences we see on social media and a current desperation to make up for time lost to Covid lockdowns. I have felt it too over the past few weeks – seeing friends enjoying the sun in beautiful Italian towns or having meals at the top of skyscrapers has made me green with envy, stuck inside eating stale toast and recovering from an unseasonal flu.

So much so that I had to turn off my Instagram and really consider my thought processes. We all know that a square on the grid is just one frame from someone’s day, not the full picture, but each image is convincing and seductive. It seeds discontent and makes us want to make our current reality different. When things don’t turn out as planned, I’ve often succumbed to the temptation to get ‘just one good picture’ of the family – all smiles and ice-cream – evidence of a good time. What I don’t tend to capture is the bickering, missed opening hours, poor weather and cancelled trains. When we’re focused on ‘making memories’, it can put an unhelpful pressure on everyone and everything to be just right, leaving us with a hole of unfulfilled expectations when our plans fail.

Living with chronic illness has helped me get used to plans being thwarted, and over the years it has instilled a patience with disappointment that doesn’t come naturally to me. But having been so well for many months, I was somewhat out of practice when illness hit our house a few weeks ago.

I had to remind myself that memories are not something we can necessarily pick and choose – they come to us, often uninvited. In a world where we can craft so much of our identity, it’s natural to want to be in control of the moments we cherish. Both the idyllic memories and the painful ones make us who we are, so the idea that we can shape them is a bit of a false premise.

Often the memories that bring me joy and comfort are not the epic vistas of an amazing holiday, the birth of romance or perfect moments with friends, but the small things that perhaps are known only to me; the memory of curling up on the sofa reading ‘The Lord of the Rings’ on a rainy Saturday aged about 14 fills me with contentment and joy. It give me a strong sense of who I really am, underneath it all. The family stories that we repeat over dinner, time after time, are of disastrous moments, scenes that at the time were painful and embarrassing. But they bring my family more joy and connection than recalling any picture postcard moment. Even the most painful memories are part of us, and with time can remind us of the road we have travelled.

So maybe this summer, let your memories make themselves. Whether I’m at home, working or on holiday, I’m determined to be in the moment and remove the pressure to make perfect memories. Your unconscious brain is very clever at deciding which memories to file under ‘important’, and they may not be the ones you would choose.

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