McKean Minute: This Thanksgiving, Be Grateful for Your Memory

A friend of mine, his body atrophying from time and cancer, looked me in the eyes and testified: “If you have your health, you have everything.”

Another friend, widowed and alone, once told me that the secret to happiness was having a family nearby.

And yet another acquaintance once pronounced that to be wealthy was to be free. “The people who tell you that money doesn’t matter? Those are the people who don’t have any,” he said.

On this Thanksgiving, I have a lot to be thankful for. I’m thankful for my health. And my family. And if I’m not rich, at least I’m not wondering how to feed and house myself.

But as I enter an age where it’s an increasingly perishable commodity, I may be most thankful for my memory.

I’ve been thinking a lot about memory lately, as I’ve chased deer and elk around this state. About memory and instinct, and how they’re similar and vastly different.

One of the silent pleasures of hunting is anticipating the actions—and reactions—of wild animals. And then having your hunch either confirmed or rejected by their behavior.

Normally, an animal’s reaction is an expression of its instinct. When a whitetail catches my wind and runs to cover, it is obeying a primitive, hard-wired command to flee. More interesting to me is watching an animal’s learned behavior. When that deer runs for cover, and then takes a left and returns to the field because it knows I’m simply cutting firewood instead of hunting, that’s an expression of its memory.

That’s an important distinction for us humans, too. We do so many things instinctually—yawning when other humans yawn, for instance, or blushing when embarrassed or aroused. Those are gifts from our ancestors. They’re common to all us humans.

But memory is something far different. It’s handmade from our own, individual experiences and perceptions. No one else shares it, or can really even experience it except through our own insufficient accounts, related through stories, histories, and remembrances.

That’s why memory is so precious. When we go, so goes this entire parallel, invisible life of the mind that will never again be replicated on this earth. So, this Thanksgiving, be thankful for your memory. And simply remember. Remember all the great, awful, awkward, happy, remarkable, mundane ingredients of your day, your week, your hunting season. Maybe some of those memories will make you blush.

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