I was recently delighted by the F. Scott Fitzgerald short story ‘Three Hours Between Planes’. It’s a classic description of how memory – real or imagined – influences our present experience. In ‘Three Hours Between Planes’, the protagonist – Donald – visits a woman he knew as a 12 year-old child – they are meanwhile both in their early 30s. Time telescopes. Each relives their memory of that long-ago relationship. Except that, the woman, Nancy, is actually remembering a different relationship with a boy of the same name – a different Donald. The warmth of that memory – a relationship the present Donald wishes he really had – draws them both into reliving the past – and re-enacting it in the moment. Discovering who he really is, she rejects him, just as she did once before. And he is disappointed. All over again.
The reason I appreciate this story is because it shows so graphically how object relations operate. Object relations theory explains how our very first relationships define all of our subsequent relationships. If we knew more about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s characters, we’d probably find out that Donald’s mother was somewhat distant and rejecting of him. Perhaps Nancy idealized an absentee father – although of course it isn’t necessarily as straightforward as that.
The point is, we seldom see other people for who they really are. No matter how long we’ve known them, or how intimately we are linked to them, we see the others in our lives through the impact of our first experience of other. And without exploring the possible lack of reality in those parallels, we’re likely to treat others accordingly.
A global example from my own experience is when I respond to my friends and relatives ‘on automatic’, that is, without paying attention to what I’m actually experiencing in the moment. I’ve noticed how I often take an opposite or contrasting stance to the one they’re expressing. My intention is not to be argumentative or to deny the truth and value of what they’re saying – not at all! To me, it’s an attempt to answer what I think is an implicit or unspoken question. I’m trying to show I understand, I know what they mean, I’m on their side, I’m participating. But in fact, it’s often a defence mechanism. I don’t want to be considered uninformed, or uninterested. An unconscious sense of deficiency is in operation. The deficiency is not based on reality; it’s based on memory. Generally speaking, it’s the memory of being the youngest in my family. Of being teased when I got something wrong, or didn’t understand. It’s an automatic response to the fear of feeling small – which as an adult, I interpret as being inadequate.
This is just an example of the millions of ways in which we can be catapulted into old feelings, old reactions based on the past. They provide fascinating opportunities for exploration. It’s not always fun – painful memories may surface in this way sometimes – but it is always rewarding. And this is one of the beauties of enquiry. Becoming aware of our experience in the moment provides rich opportunities to free ourselves from limiting beliefs based on old imprints. We can change our minds, and it’s liberating!