shaping the past, distancing ourselves: George Packer and David Brooks

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Two recent pieces by George Packer and David Brooks reflect on the ways we delineate and shape the past. We must distort because we must compress, Packer tells us, but there are consequences. Brooks, relying on science such as Critical Incident Stress Debriefing, suggests that meaningful perspective is best gained by putting time and distance between ourselves and our histories.

I tag the key quotes here—to save them for myself, to share them with you, to ask what you think of it all.
The nature of historical writing, of memory itself, is to distort by selecting and compressing events, making the past seem more dramatic and coherent than it ever was.... Narrative history, in bringing the past to life, asks us only to forget about the other turns we might have made. — George Packer, "The Uses of Division," The New Yorker, August 11/18 2014
When people examine themselves from too close, they often end up ruminating or oversimplifying. Rumination is like that middle-of-the-night thinking — when the rest of the world is hidden by darkness and the mind descends into a spiral of endless reaction to itself. People have repetitive thoughts, but don’t take action. Depressed ruminators end up making themselves more depressed.... We are better self-perceivers if we can create distance and see the general contours of our emergent system selves — rather than trying to unpack constituent parts. This can be done in several ways. — David Brooks, "Introspective or Narcissistic?", The New York Times, August 7, 2014


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