Musings on remembering and the role of forgetting.
What is forgetting? What happens to the memories when we’ve long since forgotten them?
Until our death I suppose there remains the possibility of remembering some instance from our life, triggered by an unsuspecting sensory experience—the feeling of a leaf, a particular combination of spices—until we cease to be, our memory has not been truly lost.
Even memories that are never again recalled are not gone. Each piece of our experience persists in who we were in the past, who we are today, and who we will be in the future. Each moment is, at the very least, what connected the you of the previous moment, to the you in the moment after that. Each a link in a chain connecting you to your past selves.
Experiences change us. We might carry the physical remnants of memories, as I carry a not-quite-straight scar down my chest reminding me of my experiences in the hospital as a young child just prior to and following heart surgery. As I feel the scar I am reminded of the scab that I struggled to not pick at and the frustration I felt at not being able to rip the scab right off so my chest would be smooth again. As I feel the scar I can remember the scents of the hospital, the face of the surgeon, and the nurse who was with me as I fell asleep. The scar is a physical conduit for memory.
Some memories I occasionally wish I could forget, though my anxious mind keeps them in its quiver for when it wants to remind me that I am capable of saying hurtful things, of inflicting harm on myself or others, or that not everyone likes me. For some reason, these memories remain, warped and twisted, even as others, one’s I’d care to remember—the feeling of a hug from my best friend, mundane conversations we shared prior to his death, or the witty remarks he’d slip into our games of Go—many instances of those memories seem shoved out of the way.
Without forgetting, there would be no remembering. There would also be no engaging with the Other-than-us. Memories are by their very nature from a particular point of view and so long as a memory is active, we are subsumed solipsistically into that memory until we emerge again and can re-engage with that outside of ourselves. Walking down a street remembering an instance of playing capture the flag years prior on the same street is engaging with what once was—not acknowledging what is in front of me today. The street has since been a player in countless other memories and has transformed since that time. Forgetting I’d played on that street would give me a chance to engage with it as it stands today.
I can’t remember where I read this (ha!) but someone wrote either a twitter thread or an article detailing the struggle of meeting up with old friends. The friends couldn’t see them for who they were today, they still had an image of this person in their minds—the person they remember from years ago, and that was who they were engaging with rather than the friend themselves as they existed that day.
I met my wife shortly before I turned 14 when I moved into her neighborhood. We began dating when I turned 17. I’m now 28 and we’re going on 11 years of being together. Obviously she’s not the same person as when I met her (thankfully—we hated each other initially. I stole her best friend, but we gradually grew to tolerate each other. She gave me a valentine one year from the Sims game saying “I tolerate you”). What I realized recently was that many points of conflict for us occur when she or I are engaging with the people we once were, rather than the ones we are now. In this context there’s a lot of value to the saying “forgive and forget.” Forgetting allows you to respond anew when someone changes.
Despite the initial apparent interiority of memory, memory is not ours alone. Jean-Louis Chretien expands this in his book The Unforgettable and the Unhoped For: “My past is never only mine, and is not simply kept in the secret or complete archives of my memory. What of my past escapes me, others can remember.” In accepting our weakness of memory we accept that we aren’t the only ones that remember us. We may be the only ones to remember our interior state, but our relations to the world anchor our memories.
Chretien continues “The alteration of memory by forgetting does not only constitute a destruction or mutilation, but also forms the possible site of a trust.” We don’t remember the date or place of our birth and must rely on others. We rely on our parents, older siblings, family friends, and others to relay their own memories of our first few years alive. Because memories have intentionality, sights, sounds, objects, smells, tastes, can trigger a memory. In these ways, memory serves as a reciprocal relationship between you and the external world.
A hand-carved wooden bear, for example, might serve as an anchor for your memories. Picking up the bear might trigger memories of its progress and unfinished state, your emotional state as you were carving it (perhaps as an outlet for an emotionally challenging experience), it might remind you of the location you carved it or the people around you.
The object itself contains memory as well. The wooden bear was once a branch of a living tree. That tree saw decades, if not hundreds of years, prior to becoming the bear. It saw animals come and go, floods and droughts, thousands of lives begin and end, including its own. You and that tree are now inextricably connected, your memories intertwined together so long as you live; perhaps beyond that if the bear makes its way into another’s hand. Even as the bear ceases to exist in that form, its essence becomes part of something else, and in some way you’ve been connected to whatever arises next. In this way our memories are linked to the Big Bang—the explosion of memory into being.
What, then, is forgetting? Forgetting is the momentary respite of our connection to everything everywhere all at once (which was a great movie by the way). Those who are cursed to never forget the past or future are relegated to seership and are often portrayed in the media as incoherent and unable to differentiate relevant from irrelevant detail when sharing memories. Franz Kafka illustrates this:
I know how to swim, like the others, only I have more memory than them, I have not forgotten the time when I did not know how to swim. As I have not forgotten this, knowing how to swim does not serve me at all, and in spite of it I do not know how to swim.
Without forgetting we cannot possibly change or build new relations. To negate forgetting is to negate death. To remove the possibility of rebirth, of rediscovery, of meaning to memory. One of the exquisite joys of psychedelic use is the return of memories long since forgotten or tucked away. Memories of my childhood, mundane experiences at that, yet they hold cherished feelings of joy, of sadness, of feelings that helped define me as me. In fact, part of the mental health benefits of psychedelics and of therapy is reliant on forgetting—forgetting the particular response to a traumatic memory, a negative emotion associated with an experience. This forgetting allows for the memory to be rewritten and redefined enabling the healing process.
Forgetting creates space between memories giving us room to breathe. Without forgetting, there is no coherent memory. Without forgetting there is no room for change or growth. I suppose I ought to go easy on my forgetful brain sometimes—after all it’s only trying to remind me of the importance of remembering and forgetting. Or was it something else?
Just a reminder that my philosophy and psychedelics course starts one week from today, on January 17th. There are still two spots left for anyone interested in joining. More details on the course are found in this post.