Everything that we do, or fail to do, impacts us for good or for ill for the rest of our lives. Our teachers were right…each of us has a permanent record.
By Mark D. Harris
A little boy couldn’t resist the urge to pull the hair of the girl sitting in front of him. Across the room, a little girl couldn’t help chatting with her friend while the teacher was talking. These incidents happen every day in thousands of classrooms across the United States. Modern teachers have a variety of new techniques for dealing with such infractions, but in bygone days teachers would often respond with the same threat: “if you do that again, I will write that in your permanent record.” The children would immediately stop, at least for the moment, because everyone feared bad reports in their permanent record.
As children grew and went to school to school, perceptive ones realized that these transgressions never actually appeared on their report cards. The few who were able to see their school records found that only the most egregious sins were documented. Parents didn’t seem to have a “permanent record”, unless it was a criminal one. By the time that school ended and the working world beckoned, the secret was out; there was no “permanent record.” Teachers had known it all along, and their pupils had taken 20 years to figure it out.
Over the years several of my children have told me that a school teacher had mentioned a child’s permanent record. I felt the familiar egoism of experience, the smug sense of skepticism, gained in decades of American schooling, and told my children – there is no permanent record.
Your Permanent Record – Body and Mind
Recently in my clinical practice I cared for a 14 year old girl with a torn anterior cruciate (knee) ligament from a soccer game. Several months earlier I counseled a 26 year old whose life had been overturned by rape. Years before I treated a 23 year old for cervical cancer; she had started sex at age 13. Some patients, especially boys, have been hooked on tobacco before they started high school. One young boy had a head injury from a bicycle accident, putting him far behind his peers. In all of these cases, the decisions that these people made as children, or decisions that were imposed upon them, changed their lives forever. My experience as a physician belies my skepticism. There really is a permanent record, and it is found in our bodies and minds.
Another obvious example of your permanent record is memory. While we usually overcome the pain of past mistakes and experiences, we usually can’t erase the memory of them. Few people reach adulthood without carrying a bag of regret, and before middle age that bag grows into a knapsack. Over the years our knees buckle and backs stoop with the growing weight of the past. As we enter the winter of our lives, many people can think of little but summers past. Much of the psychological illness that I treat every day comes from my patients’ memories of what they did, didn’t do, or what someone else did to them.
Your Permanent Record – Habits and Emotions
One of the key concepts of physiology and psychology is that of practice; what we do becomes easier to do again. If we throw a ball, we can through the ball more easily the next time. If we think a thought, we can think that thought more easily the next time. Champions in sports and music are made because the body improves through practice. Neophytes in a field make two common mistakes. First, they expect practice to make huge improvements, then become disappointed and quit when it does not. Second, they believe that practice makes perfect. In truth, practice makes permanent; only perfect practice makes perfect.
When a person thinks, neurons fire and hormones flow in certain patterns. When someone moves, neurons fire, hormones flow, and muscles contract in certain patterns. Repeating those patterns thousands and even millions of times develops habits and skills in certain areas. This is how champions are made.
It is also how people fail. Repeating the same negative thoughts, refusing to forgive and wallowing in bitterness will develop neural pathways and hormonal patterns just like more productive activities will. Lying makes it easier to lie just as kicking a ball makes it easier to kick. Using foul language makes it easier to use foul language just as smiling makes it easier to smile. There really is a permanent record, and it is found in our habits and emotions.
Your Permanent Record – How Others Perceive and Treat You
Just as people develop patterns within themselves, they develop patterns in their interactions with others. I was caring for one woman in clinic while her husband sat in the exam room berating her. They had only been married two years, but his habits were toxic to her, to him, and to their marriage. I asked him, “If you have committed yourself to this woman in marriage, why would you want to hurt her, and yourself, by chiding her so? You had better change your ways or she won’t be there when you need her.”
Our actions change how others treat us. If a child gets a reputation as a troublemaker early in the school year, others in the class will treat him as a troublemaker, even if he improves over the course of the year. Because others are not as interested in us as we are, they will take a long time to notice our actions and change their opinions of us. Sometimes they will not change their opinions no matter what we do, because changing an opinion is harder than keeping the same opinion.
Benedict Arnold has a terrible reputation in American history because he tried to betray his country. Few will change their opinion of him, even if they learn that he was one of very few successful admirals (Battle of Valcour Island) and generals (Battle of Saratoga) in world history. Arnold fought with wisdom and courage for the colonies, only succumbing to pride, ambition, and a staunchly Tory young wife, at the end of a noble career.
Richard Nixon was another character whose decades of admirable service have been forgotten and only his late mistakes remembered. People refuse to change their opinions of others because they gain something by keeping the opinions that they have. That is one reason that it is so hard to make changes in life. A person does something good, no one notices, and others will treat them the same way as before. There really is a permanent record, and it is found in how others perceive and treat us.
Thoughts, words and actions are self-reinforcing spirals, and the summation of all of those spirals makes a life. There really is a permanent record, and that record is you. Nothing good or bad is ever lost, and every moment makes a lifetime. Use them well.