Re-writing history with head nods

Most decisions in our lives are very complex.   They involve many influences tugging at our minds.  We are conscious of some of these tugging influences, but I contend that we are not conscious of most of the influences.  But once our minds have made a choice, we slowly form stories to explain to both ourselves and others the “hows?” or “whys?” of our decision.  The resulting story excludes this complexity.

These stories usually are very simplified.  For not only do we ourselves not understand many of the processes that subconsciously informed our decisions, but even our simplified understanding gets whittled down further over time as we watch others respond to our stories.

Let me give a fictional example.  Imagine “Fred” breaks up with his girlfriend “Mary”.  Fred’s friends will ask him “Why did you break up with Mary?”  Now, if the people asking are close friends of Mary, he may say, “Well, she just did not like me as much as I think couples who are in-love should like each other.  So I decided to be honest and just break up.”  Mary’s friends, knowing that Mary had doubts about Fred, know he is right but they don’t want to hurt Fred’s feelings any further so they just comfort him saying, “Well, I hope it all works out for you.”

But Fred tells a different version to another group of his own friends who barely know Mary, “Well, Mary always complained and was never happy.”   Lots of these friends like this story because it makes Fred look good and they personally feel that they have had girlfriends that complained too much.  So they give him lots of strong head nods as they pat him on the back and laughingly say, “Well, there are lots of fish in the sea, you’ll find a good one!”

Now, there may be elements of truth to both stories, but even these two stories themselves surely don’t carry half of the real complexity of this couple’s separation.  And over time,  Fred may just stick with the story where he gets the most head nods and pats on the back.  Fred will only use the story that works best.  And he will use it over and over for years and slowly Fred himself will start forgetting the details of his relationship with Mary and he will simply rewrite his real history with Mary with this approved simple version of Mary.

Rewriting History

Did you re-write your religious history?

New couples usually do this with each other – deriding their previous partners with simple stories to make both their new partner and themselves feel good.  “He/she was just a complete idiot”, they say.  And with the right amount of head nods, the story sticks.  The human mind does this constantly.  This is just one of the many ways our rationality is bounded.

Question for readers:  Can you recognize how you have re-written your story of a former relationship?  Or, more in keeping with the theme of this blog:  Can you recognize how you have simplified your story of conversion in or out of a religion?


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

30 responses to “Re-writing history with head nods

  1. Temaskian

    Agree that decision-making is very complex, and we may never know what drove us to make certain decisions in the past.

    But we do need to make sense of our past. If not for others, then for our own sake.

    I’m continuously re-writing my past in order to make more sense of it. Isn’t it logical to think that as we’re older now, we’re more able to make sense of our past?

    It’s been quite an interesting thought exercise to try to re-construct my conversion experience, but from different persons’ POV, to wonder what was going through their minds, and how they responded to my ‘turning rogue’. Even though I would most probably never be able to re-construct the complete truth.

  2. all history is subjective. we are collection of cells that tells itself a narrative that is constantly being re-interpreted in light of new information. history is an interpretation that won’t remain fixed…. remember when america used to celebrate Columbus day with great zeal? now there seems to be a big backlash against this ‘holiday’ in light of the colonial and genocidal nature of it.

  3. Ian

    @Luke – there’s a difference between history and historiography.

    @sabio – Wow, great post! Yes, I constantly rewrite and refine the stories of lots of things. Why I lost a particular client, why I split up with a particular girlfriend, why I became a Christian, why I stopped being a Christian.

    Though, I think, at least for most of them, I can also still access the full-version too. I use the story as mental short-hand, but I’m not sure I buy into it wholesale.

  4. Ian

    I had a great chat to my wife (a historian) about Hitler this w/e. We were talking about how he was a great man, how he took a country destitute and broken and turned it into the focus of the world’s attention. How it was a shame that the need to demonize Hitler stops us understanding how remarkable he was. And therefore might prevent us from seeing and stopping another Hitler rise in our midst.

    The Hitler=Satan storyline we tell ourselves is not just as good, just as subjective, or a matter of personal taste as the reality of his politics, charisma and strategy. I think Luke’s comment on history, if taken at face value, is quite dangerous. It seems to suggest that Hitler’s retelling of the history of Germany, for example, is just as subjective as those you’ll read in David Stevenson, for example.

  5. “there’s a difference between history and historiography.”

    good point… should state that “all personal history is subjective.” and there’s a degree in it in history books as well. you and your wife are right about “Hitler as absolute evil” misses the fact that we can all be Hitler at times and that he was very popular in his time.

    I love “A people’s history of US” by Howard Zinn and that’s what I was trying to get at in my statement. namely a Eurocentric view of history misses out on the rich First Nations histories. or the contribution of minority populations. some are views of history better than others, yes, absolutely.

    i’m not very good at short-posts, but i’m working on getting better and clearer. thanks for your concerns. i don’t mean to take an absolute pomo-stance every time as i’m quite modernist in many ways. i just see the limitations of both takes.

  6. Ian


    I think we’ve said before that we often settle into particular roles here on Sabio’s blog. You the pomo-evangelist and me the pomo-hater. I realise that neither are the whole story, but it is also useful I think to sharpen our arguments in a place where we know our mutual criticism is meant with a very large dose of mutual appreciation and respect. I, for one, love locking horns with you occasionally, even if I do so by taking a slightly un-nuanced position. 🙂

    And I do think that it if it were possible to state what you mean by the ‘greatest’ work of ‘art’ ever, then it would almost certainly be measurable. The fact that your feelings, or anyone else’s change all the time wouldn’t matter. The problem is not in the measurement, but in the fact that ‘greatest work of art’ doesn’t actually mean much.

  7. un-nuance positions are what i do best 😉

    let’s take for example that “Cafe de Terrace at Night” by Van Gogh is the greatest piece of impressionist art ever. i wouldn’t know how to start to measure this claim nor can i begin to define what “greatest work of art” as you’re exactly right, it doesn’t mean all that much. maybe i can talk about the application of paint, the brush technique, the color palate and how it refracts light in a spectrum analysis, and do all sorts of measurements to it… but you can’t measure the “Woo” effect.

    i dunno. it seems that we place too many modifiers on it, then the title then becomes meaningless too.. like the Cafe we’d modify it to be Van Gogh’s best painting done on the particular day he finished it… or some suchlike claim.

  8. While I don’t deny that I re-frame my religious stories for different audiences (this is simple impression management…everyone does it)…I also have a bit of an anchor in that I have written in journals for a while. I don’t write nearly as often as I should (and didn’t in the past), but I do have some key journal entries that relate how I was feeling *the day of* certain events, etc.,

    It’s been interesting to see — reading back through them — how things have changed since then.

  9. Al

    I agree, Sabio, that we usually write history to make ourselves look good. This would be particularly so for others–we want the story others believe to leave us in a good light.

    For ourselves, I expect it waffles more. Yes, we want to look good to our own selves, but we are also continually trying to make sense, to go deeper, to figure out where, indeed, we are at. I agree with Temaskian that we constantly look at the past (and present, for that matter), wanting to make sense of it, to pinpoint where we feel we are at.

    After all, our ‘relationship with religion’ is a life-time journey, not a brief fling or one-night stand. It probably has specific turning points, but is an ongoing story.

    (Nice cartoon, btw.)

  10. I like what Andrew said about the journals. Without a detailed record like that we need to rely on over-generalized items to remember who we were, how we thought, what happened, etc. in our lives. But even the journals of course miss nuance on what was going on with us, how we were feeling. It is inevitable that things like that get lost to time or recreated in our minds.

    To answer your question, I recognize myself encapsulating key events in my conversion and deconversion stories. I suspect the conversion stories especially were tailored to fit certain audiences, but largely because they were shaped significantly by those audiences.

  11. We were talking about how he was a great man, how he took a country destitute and broken and turned it into the focus of the world’s attention.(Ian)

    Im not so sure that bringing a destitute and broken country to the worlds attention makes you a “great man”. Many vicious and sadistic leaders have done the same. Unfortunately they all have common traits, they bring the worst of what men can offer. I dont consider that great. And thats a truth.

  12. societyvs

    “Or, more in keeping with the theme of this blog: Can you recognize how you have simplified your story of conversion in or out of a religion?” (Sabio)

    I always see stories change when more facts surface about the situation in question. I really haven’t changed my conversion story very much (tweaks here and there as more info surfaces). Then again, I am a fan of very harsh truths (specially in relationships).

    History, as in the stories you present about Fred, have that one fatal flaw to them…human ego. What if we tried to remove that for some of the finer (maybe harsher) truths about ourselves? Maybe we are not as attractive as we think? Maybe we didn’t know what a female really wanted in the situation? Maybe we wanted what we wanted and ignore the other? I find the reality of situation only some with hard questions like that.

    As for re-writing history – well we are the whims of the records…and the further we go back the less records we have to re-construct with.

    I think we want to believe the old quip ‘the winners write history’. Fact is, history is being written with or without us…and we can voice something or not. I try to find the positive in history – cause the winners don’t ever tell the whole story and we are finding this out more and more as we find more and more stuff to corroborate or not corroborate a story.

    I am also with John, Hitler was a douchbag and for his sake – I hope they serve beer in hell.

  13. Pingback: What is the value of writing in journals? « Irresistible (Dis)Grace

  14. Ian

    @t4t + societyvs

    I agree Hitler was a douchebag. As have been many ‘great’ men in history. I use great in the sense of Alexander the Great. Rather than in the sense of ‘what a great fellow!’.

    It doesn’t excuse, diminish, or alter Hitler’s crimes against humanity to understand how he acquired the means to perpetrate them. And there no simple demonization of him is going to work.

  15. dreadpiratescetis

    History be seeming to be written by consensus. If it isn’t tribal consensus then it be scholarly consensus. Whatever gets the head nods.

    Christians be having a term for this style of history of focusing on the good and leaving out the bad. It be called “sin.” Lent be the season upcoming where we are called to take a good hard look at our lives; focusing on the really hard to look at and deal with parts and then reform them slowly over time.

    Many do not like to talk about sin, even pirates because we do more than our fair share, yet I be thinking something important is lost when we do away with this concept. I can also see the problem on focusing on this concept too much.

  16. I totally agree. Yes, we do re-write stories. In fact, even if we are not involved, there is always subjectivity on any story we tell. That’s one of the way is which going to college to study writing helped me de-convert. I understood then that even personal memoirs are highly subjective and can’t completely be trusted. But when we read tales written by observers, we should also be weary of subjectivity. So, I started second- and third-guessing the Bible.

    But when it comes to my many de-conversion stories, I can say that the more time passes, the least subjective they get. For instance, when I had just left the church, I was blaming the nasty Christians. Now, I realize that I was the nasty one. I try to be honest.

  17. Ian

    @pirate – That’s a really interesting angle.

    I’m not sure its that simple, however. I know lots of the little stories I’ve summarized in my head are of the bad things. I have little memories that first hit me with embarrassment, before the rest of the memory kicks in and I can understand that it really wasn’t that bad.

    I think confessional self-reflection is too often an exercise in inventing evils that aren’t there.

  18. I use great in the sense of Alexander the Great.(Ian)

    I understand what youre trying to say, I just think there are probably better terms than “great” to describe Hitler. Using Alexander isnt probably the best analogy seeing as he usually led his troops into battle. To the best of my knowledge, Hitler stayed at the rear, which isnt so great. 😉

  19. Many do not like to talk about sin, even pirates because we do more than our fair share,

    LOL at the “even pirates” insertion. Pirates seem to be really good at livening things up, I didn’t know that before.

  20. Ian

    @t4t – i read my original post again late last night and realised I sounded like a born-again neo-Nazi. Apologies for giving that impression! I’m glad you understood what I meant, I feel pretty safe from that kind of misunderstanding here!

    I wonder what a word for ‘great’ would be without the connotation of ‘good’.

    But hey, enough Hitler, the comment thread is far more interesting without him.

  21. I’d love to go back in time and give myself a survey at certain points in my life. Perhaps pre-Christian, early Christian, late Christian, and post Christian. I know now what I think of things I thought then, but it’s more difficult to objectively remember what I believed then.

  22. At the risk of oversimplifying, but to help make points, I see 3 sorts of positions in all these fun comments:

    (A) More pessimistic than me — “everything is subjective”

    (B) Agree with me — “Skepticism with value on tools that reduce subjectivity

    (C) More optimistic than me — Sure, maybe some subjectivity but there are ways I have around it.

    So, my reply to those folks:

    (A) Everything is Subjective,

    @ Luke :“all historiography is subjective”, indeed, but we have developed tools to help distill the objective. So, there are degrees of subjectivity — that is very important.

    B) Skepticism with value on tools that reduce subjectivity
    Ian, ATTR, Lorena, Mike and I seem to be all in this camp.

    C) I have personal ways around subjectivity.

    @ Temaskian :Temaskian feels as we are older we are “able to make sense of our past”. I think we must doubt our own self stories, even when older.

    @ Andrew : Andrew uses his journal and hopes it protects his objectivity. But I contend that even the day you record you thoughts, you are not aware of huge aspects of your decisions and thus self-deceived even then.

    Al seemed to get the cartoon. I was trying to say, “Maybe we deride ex-lovers with the same self-righteousness that we deride our previous religions.” This is indeed a weakness.

    Oh, yeah, I will ignore the Hitler & greatness. It was an unfortunate side-track.

  23. I see 3 sorts of positions in all these fun comments:(Sabio)

    Im curious, are you being objective with these findings or is there some subjectivity creeping in? 🙂

  24. I wouldn’t say I’m getting around my subjectivity either. But then again, I wouldn’t say subjectivity is a bad thing…so to say that the “pessimistic” position is “everything is subjective” seems to miss the mark. Rather, the idea of objectivity in the first place seems silly.

    When I write in a journal, that too represents a subjective state, a subjective selection of details, etc., etc., It is more immediate to the event, but it’s still creative. It’s *always* creative.

    And too, when I review my journal, I’m not anchoring back to some objective past. That would be like saying history is objective (I hope people here don’t have that delusion). No, instead, I’m comparing two subjective states (and the distance between the two actually creates another subjective reaction: “Wow, did I really think that when I was younger?!”)

    Be careful when you say we are “distilling the objective.” most of the time, we are distilling a sort of “intersubjectivity,” but this isn’t the same as the objective. When we observe the frequency range of light from 630 to 740 nm, whatever word this is, the vast majority of us will say that it should correspond to “red” and that those who don’t see it that way (the color blind or the completely blind) are incorrect. But we aren’t getting at the objective nature of 630 to 740 nm of frequency here…rather, we are coming to an intersubjective majority. Our sight happens to be wired similarly, so we think we see the same thing. The problem with qualia is precisely that they — and by extension everything we *observe* — are subjective, not objective.

  25. Temaskian

    I still have the same sentiments with Laura that time should help us to be more objective, especially when it comes to our personal history. The distance of time diminishes personal emotions.

    If we doubt everything, even our own thoughts, wouldn’t we go insane? 😀 Everything disintegrates into meaninglessness.

    Even the history of Hitler gets more objective as time passes by. People wonder if he was perhaps not a great help to the poor spirits of Germany at the time; perhaps he was not informed of the Jewish Holocaust. Just saying; I know nuts about history.

  26. Temaskian

    It would be easier to prove that he knew about it than that he didn’t. So the onus is on those who say he knew about it to prove so. Anyway, that’s all for historians to do. Not our jobs.

  27. Ian

    “Maybe we deride ex-lovers with the same self-righteousness that we deride our previous religions.”

    Re-reading that made me think immediately of Sting’s song (one of my favourites 😉 ): Ghost story:

  28. Fun, I did not know that one. Apparently Sting was singing about his father. Going back and claiming memories and feelings (“Ghosts”) that were whittled out of our mind for the sake of standard conversation and simpler views of life. Best not to cut them out in the first place.

  29. Ian

    @Sabio – Cool, I didn’t know it was about his father. I assumed it referred to his first wife. In any case, it has always been about the misremembering of past relationships for me. @Mike – me too, so haunting.

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