Cornerstone

I’m a big fan of the show¬†Westworld. Robots and cowboys. Oh, and Anthony Hopkins. What’s not to like?

Westworld is an HBO show about the dawn of artificial consciousness. Credit: HBO
Westworld is an HBO show about the dawn of artificial consciousness. Credit: HBO

In one episode, the characters introduce the concept of a “cornerstone memory”. In architecture, a cornerstone or foundational stone is the first stone set in the construction of a foundation. All other stones will be set in reference to the cornerstone and it will determine the position of the entire building. For the robots in Westworld, the cornerstone memory is the one that their entire identity is built around. These memories define the robot’s central story and tether their thoughts and actions to a core motivation or theme.

The humans in the show have cornerstone memories, too, just as we do in real life. These memories stir up the feelings associated with them as if the moment just happened and dictate how we respond to the world. We use these memories to remind ourselves who and what we are.

I keep going back to my son’s first seizure, feeling the fear and the sadness that I first felt watching his body tighten and his head turn to the side. I lose my breath as I remember him being unresponsive as I desperately tried to wrestle him from his seizure, the panic I felt, the helplessness. I can’t bear to stay in that memory too long.

That memory drives my present day actions and motivations. It is why I write this blog. It’s why I signed up for the marathon. The helplessness I felt in that moment and the realization that I felt lost is why I sought help to cope with the complex emotions and challenges that lie ahead. It’s why I committed to becoming a better father and a better husband, to provide for my son and my family, and why I work so hard to give them a good life.

As painful as that memory is, I try to be grateful that I have it because of how much my life has changed for the better because of it. I don’t know that a less painful memory could have had such a profound impact on how I live my life. As much as I wish my son wouldn’t have to go through any of this, I’m not sure that any other path our life could have taken would have brought us all as close as we are and I don’t want to take what we have for granted.

In Westworld, the cornerstone memory is the one story that the robot’s entire identity is based on. It’s used to keep them on a predefined narrative. If they try to imagine a future that varies from their path, the memory pulls them back to keep them within the bounds of the set story. I find myself doing the same sometimes when I try to imagine a future for my son. The memory of that first seizure tries to limit those possible futures that I can see and it takes everything I have to fight its gravity.

But life is not about one story, it’s made up of hundreds. Thousands. The memory of my son’s first seizure is one of my stories, but it’s not the only one. It has influenced my life, but so have the other memories that I carry with me. My life doesn’t have one cornerstone. It has many, creating an infinite number of buildings in complicated shapes that are still being built.

The memory of my son’s first seizure is a cornerstone, not the cornerstone. It has shaped my life in many ways but it, alone, does not determine my future. Or his. Our experiences change us by they do not control us. We are human, with unlimited potential and countless unwritten futures. We should embrace that, and we should create a future that celebrates that potential.