Memory full. Thank you.

I used to have an answering machine. When it was full, the machine would announce: “Memory full. Thank you.” It wasn’t about the number of calls; it was about capacity. When this machine was full, it was full, and nothing else could get in.

I suspect there’s a learning moment here. And it’s not just about machines with scanty memory — it’s about our human capacity to take things in. When we hit capacity (whatever that looks like for each of us), our minds and hearts become Teflon, and any new stuff just slides off. It doesn’t matter that the new stuff seems obvious to everyone but us; if we’re “full,” we are just not available for new information.

Think about relationships with friends or partners or colleagues at work. These folks may be trying, over and over again, to get a message across. But if we’re “Memory full. Thank you,” there’s just no getting through to us.

Even when someone close to us says something deeply painful, such as “I really don’t love you,” or “I need out of this relationship,” we all tend to be so deeply embedded in our own needs that we extract from the incoming wind of words only what we need and want to hear.

Or perhaps someone says, “I love you,” and we’re so full of need and fear that what we hear is: “I can’t live without you. Come away with me.” Whereas what the speaker means may be more along the lines of, “In this moment, I have good feelings toward you.” Then again, they may say, “I really don’t love you,” yet we’re so full of (guess what? need and fear) that we hear, “I do love you, but you can’t tell it because I don’t call, don’t write, don’t come by, don’t share my life with you, etc.”

Or your boss says, “Great job.” And we hear a promotion coming our way, when all that was actually said were two simple words. Or someone says, “I’m not up for a movie tonight.” And we hear, “I don’t want to spend time with you ever again.”

When we’re “full, thank you” of our own stuff, there’s no room for the real messages, no room for the truth that’s being spoken to get through. When we’re full of need, fear, sorrow, grasping and gasping, others’ intent gets lost in our full-up state.

Compounding the problem, of course, is the fact that we don’t come equipped with anything as easy as a delete button or an erase key. We aren’t made to quickly and easily download all those memories that are keeping us deaf, so we hear others only through the filter of our own complex (and often unrecognized) stuff.

Being in a profession where I deal with lots of sad people, I’ve thought about this situation a good deal. And since I believe that need and fear are fundamental parts of our humanity that deserve a respected place in each individual’s emotional spectrum, it seems to me that what we need is a magical balance: respecting the hard-earned feelings and memories that come with a fully lived life while administering a daily dose of letting go. A balance of “save as” and “delete” that happens every single day.

In practice, this seems to mean a great deal of inner work on everyone’s part — and occasionally some pretty messy work at that. But consider the alternatives. We could go through life missing a lot of what is said to us beneath the words, via actions and intents. We can batter ourselves black and blue on the brick walls of illusion and delusion until we lose touch with our own innate good sense. We can be so busy hanging onto our “Memory full. Thank you” that we miss out on the realities of other people who care enough about us (or not) to tell us the truth as they experience it. When you put it like that, the hard work of achieving balance once in a while begins to sound like an alternative worth trying.

One essential piece of work, it seems to me, is finding a bit of intentional quiet time every day — time when we do nothing but breathe and delete, to make way for new messages. It could be sitting on a cushion for hours or sitting in the car for three minutes before going into work.

Of course, when we’re caught up in our fears and obligations, it may seem as though we have no time to spare. But if someone’s that busy, even three minutes might feel like a full day of quiet. It’s all relative, and it’s also all about intent. It’s about meaningful stillness during which we internally click “delete.”

Another prime opportunity to do some inner work concerns catching ourselves at repeatedly interrupting others. Full up; nothing can get in; no way but our way. A good piece of work here is a gentle but firm closing of the mouth — just for the sheer discipline of it — until we can delete some things and not need to talk quite so much.

And then there are the myriad telltale behaviors that play out when we’re driving, like tailgating in heavy traffic. Full up; we’re in such a hurry that we’re more important than that guy in the 4×4 turning into that fast-food place. We’re more important than somebody going slowly through the tunnel. And we’re way more important than someone with out-of-state plates who’s come to Asheville to see Biltmore Estate. We’re so full that we can’t draw a breath or stop talking on the cell phone long enough to let somebody admire a pretty building or get a hamburger. Full up.

That answering machine finally blew itself into oblivion — probably just wore itself out by continually having a full memory and trying to be polite about it. The machine I have now merely blinks a red “F” when it’s maxed out. Meanwhile, this lifetime learner is continuing her constant quest for balance.

[Jane Curran is a United Methodist minister and the chaplaincy supervisor at CarePartners Mountain Area Hospice. She has worked extensively with the ethical, emotional and spiritual issues surrounding end-of-life care and has written a soon-to-be-released book about the ongoing work of “being there” for others as a caregiver.]

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