Rewriting History: The Dangers of Overcorrection

As we grow, our understanding of what happened to us changes. We gain more information. We develop a more sophisticated and nuanced perspective. We acquire greater sympathy for the other dramatis personae crossing the stage of our flawed lives. An evolution in character and maturity is typical for any adult with a modicum of curiosity and honest insight.

But what happens when we interact with individuals whose highest purpose is to present themselves in the most flattering light possible, no matter how far this takes them from the truth? How do we handle such blatant distortions?

As seen in too many Congressional hearings to count, politicians and bureaucrats are guided by the precept that truth is a flexible concept, a rough approximation of what happened. More often than not, history is written by the victor, so certain inconvenient facts may be glossed over or eliminated. Unsurprisingly, we’ve all done this at one point or another. What becomes tricky for a re-booter is when our pursuit of an objective and fair an understanding collides with the wildly inaccurate but emphatic version someone else espouses. The closer they are to us, the trickier the situation becomes.

What do we do?

Do we speak up and correct them? Do we silently label them crazy or hard core liars? Do we bitterly complain to their shrink? Or, do we counsel ourselves that it doesn’t matter?

How have you handled such scenarios?

I have close, personal, and painful experience with self-serving tellers of revisionist history, which have left me feeling both flabbergasted and angry. But now that I’m neck deep in this re-booting business I force myself to question whether I might be casting the same series of events in an unfair or inaccurate manner. Whether there might be more room for deviation from the narrative than I have previously admitted. Such uncomfortable scrutiny is difficult, but doing so has brought with it certain advantages…

Because I recognize that I’m vulnerable to interpreting events in my own favor, asking myself these questions has resulted in slowing down my swift and clear condemnations of the other person. Instead of focusing my energies on what was said, I now look behind it to explore why this person said it, why they believe this is so. What is it about their version that helps reduce their anxiety? Their warped perspective serves a very particular purpose (usually related to minimizing all traces of their own responsibility).

For example, when my parents split up, my dad was furious, livid, claimed to be shocked and betrayed, and outright accused us kids of being Benedict Arnolds by supporting our mother in any capacity. He (along with my grandparents and extended family) held firm to this narrative for a good thirty years. They talked of family love and loyalty in the exacting and unforgiving terms of war—I’m not kidding. Words cannot express how awful it was and what a searing impact it has had on my life. One of the main reasons I returned to Washington has been to heal this rift.

These days, my father presents himself as nothing but sweetness and light. Conveniently for him, there is zero recollection of the single minded hatred and rage he perpetuated. No concept of the impacts his behavior had or the gasp inducing unkindnesses of what he used to say. None at all. Tabla rasa. While I am old enough and have had enough therapy to know that I am responsible for my choices and reactions to his behavior, there is a part of me that fumes at his revised self-portrait, blithely unaware of the long term consequences of his actions. To him, I’m just his perplexing but charming daughter who never managed to get married—never once even questioning whether or not his behavior might have something to do with the course I charted.

Of course, it’s wonderful that he now strives to be gentler, more patient, and supportive. All that’s very good and vastly preferable to the alternative. But it’s been done with zero recognition of how he was prior to this… At the end of the day, there’s nothing I can do about it; I’m certainly not going to stir up old resentments by disputing his version of what happened around the divorce—what constructive purpose would that serve? Just so I can witness him experiencing a few moments of devastating guilt before conveniently forgetting it all over again? No. I won’t go there. Not with him and not with others.

Instead, what I can do is 1) remind myself to watch for instances where I start weaving my own fantastical tales, 2) keep in mind that whatever I am hearing from someone else may not be a full picture, and 3) try my best not to get upset. When you think about it, these are pretty good takeaways.

So, where does this leave us in terms of our re-booting journey and today’s post?

Revising history happens to all of us—we are both its victims and its perpetrators. The best a re-booter can do is to strive to be aware of this danger, to have a mature sympathy for its practitioners, and to retain a humility about what it is we think we know. Even when the facts are accurately told, there’s always more to the story

Just how did that cloud get there? Is it a cloud at all?

Just how did that cloud get there? Is it a cloud at all?


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