The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Painful moments make the sharpest memories. That’s a good thing.

How trauma can focus our attention in beneficial ways.

Pain can be formative. (iStockphoto)

In recent years, for work on a book, I’ve sat with two South African men, one black and one white, for dozens of hours as they pieced through memories of their earlier lives. One, C., had spent his young life never imagining white minority rule could ever collapse in the African country. The other, E., spent his childhood fantasizing about what would happen when it did.

Our memories of our lives are funny things. Ask people to remember their houses from childhood, their birthday parties, their happy recollections, and the details are vague. The moments we remember most powerfully are those of shock. Though E., the black man, spent his youth wondering what would happen if and when black people liberated themselves from their long oppression, he struggled to recall April 27, 1994, the day it did. He’d been 17, nearly old enough to vote. What had he done? What had his father and mother done that day?

But the morning his beloved elder brother, Sam, died? He remembered exactly how it had rained, the soft, soaking rain his people called medupi, also a beloved name for women. And then it had cleared, and the leaves of the giant fig tree from which Sam had fallen had dripped and lifted, and a certain type of bird had sung in the branches.

C., also, had a hard time remembering that April 1994 day. He’d been in college, old enough to cast a ballot, and it wasn’t the biggest shock, because he’d seen it coming. But the night he first came into direct, face-to-face combat with a black man while serving in his pre-liberation, white-led army? The hair of the man and the kind of bush in which he’d been hiding were as fresh, when C. closed his eyes, as if he’d seen them yesterday.

Generally in our lives, we’d give anything to avoid moments like these. And that’s part of why we remember them. The stress hormones cortisol and epinephrine inscribe events on our memories when they’re released, helping us avoid them in the future. “Nothing focuses the mind like surprise,” the behavioral economist Sharam Heshmat has written.

But my work with C. and E. made me think these hated moments have more value for us than we like to think. They escort our attention, distracted and mindless beings that we are, back to the world. I was struck by how intensely, in these moments of personal shock, the two men I got to know noticed the world around them: its weather, its flora, its fauna, the peculiar arbitrariness of its shapes and colors. They saw its indifference to our own tragicomic histories, and its astonishing wonder, the way it goes on and on without us and beyond us and in spite of us, persisting in its beauty even as we’re falling to our knees.