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Remember to Remember

Nietzsche looking for keys

Memory as Identity

I recall hearing an account of a woman who was caring for her sick husband. He had severe dementia and had lost almost all his memory. She said it was like her husband had died, was already gone, but his body was still physically alive, aimlessly wandering around their house. For her it was like living with a stranger who resembled her husband but was not him in any meaningful sense. She said she felt unable to even begin to grieve for her loss. It was like living with a ghost.

Profound loss of memory, such as that caused by dementia, is comparable to a loss of self. What we remember makes us who we are. Memories tell the story of our lives. The fact that memory is the decisive key to our identity explains why dementia is so terrifying for many of us.

Memory as Burden

Memory is crucial then, but that does not mean that memories themselves are necessarily good. If memories are constitutive of one’s self – if you are your memories – what about when you are trying to change yourself, develop your self, become a better version of yourself? Then memories can hold you back. We could say that memories of success are more valuable to you than memories of failure. Memories of success help you consolidate this new and improved self-concept. Whereas memories of failure only serve to reinforce your unsatisfactory pre-developed state.

Think of the athlete who is trying to build her confidence before a big race. She does better to dwell on her previous victories rather than on her failures and there is good evidence that this strategy can be effective.

We have said before that energy goes where attention flows - that which dominates our thoughts instantiates in us. For example, if we dwell on memories of being bullied in the past, they may make us inappropriately defensive in the present. For that reason, that which empowers us should be the focus of our minds as much as is possible, but unfortunately our pasts frequently offer only disempowering data - memories that are sad, painful, embarrassing, disappointing, guilt-inducing, even traumatic.

Remembering to Learn

Every life is generally a catalogue of mistakes and accidents as well as successes and blessings - this is quite normal. Mistakes are essential to learning. Bad things happen but some adversities can provide opportunities for learning, growth, or they may provide a valuable challenge for us to overcome, building character in the process. On top of this, an assortment of good and bad experiences makes life interesting. What would our happiest moments be if they were not contrasted with the lows we have battled through?

However, when we are unlucky or experience failures, and once we have drawn what lessons we can from the experience, it is helpful to be able to relegate the memory to the very periphery of our consciousness, or even to forget it altogether. Alternatively, having processed it, we might bear the scar it has produced with a certain pride; learn to laugh about it even.

Less positively, bad memories can become burdensome pathologies when they continue to occupy a disproportionate amount of our attention, pushing out more useful thoughts, or when they cast a shadow across our lives generally, tainting all our experiences. We need to be able to let go of these bad memories. Nietzsche goes further. He says that forgetting is essential to any kind of happiness.

Nietzsche on Memory

In On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life, Nietzsche writes that too often man ‘cannot learn to forget but clings relentlessly to the past: however far and fast he may run, this chain runs with him’.

But ‘In the case of the smallest or of the greatest happiness, however, it is always the same thing that makes happiness happiness: the ability to forget’ and indeed ‘Forgetting is essential to action of any kind, just as not only light but darkness too is essential for the life of everything organic’.

He goes on to argue that ‘it is possible to live almost without memory, and to live happily moreover, as the animal demonstrates’. Here Nietzsche observes that, though non-human animals can learn by apparent recall (for example, a dog can learn tricks) and they can remember some things (such as where they may have cached food) they do not re-run events over and over in their heads (to the best of our knowledge) like human beings do. Non-human animals don’t appear to torture themselves with past failings, imagining how they might have acted differently, or trying to understand why events transpired as they did. Even less do they seem to worry about the future.

So, this obsessing about past events or what the future has in store seems distinctly human and though we are encumbered by excessive remembering, conversely ‘it is altogether impossible to live at all without forgetting. Or, to express my theme even more simply: there is a degree of sleeplessness… which is harmful and ultimately fatal to the living thing’.

The word ‘sleeplessness’ is useful here. Your cat does not struggle to sleep, haunted by its past disappointments, anxious about its future prospects. But the human being - this animal needs to put the past and the future out of mind, at least to some extent, in order to be able to rest at all, and more than this: to be actually able to get on with the business of life.

‘The man says I remember, and envies the animal, who at once forgets and for whom every moment really dies, sinks back into night and fog and is extinguished forever. Thus the animal lives unhistorically: for it is contained in the present… it does not know how to dissimulate, it conceals nothing and at every instant appears wholly as what it is; it can therefore never be anything but honest. Man, on the other hand, braces himself against the great and ever greater pressure of what is past: it pushes him down or bends him sideways, it encumbers his steps as a dark, invisible burden’.

We remember too much, too often, but at the same time we would be unable to carry on at all if we did not constantly forget. This latter claim may sound outlandish but, in fact, we do use forgetting all the time in our everyday lives.

In the Next post, we will examine how we humans employ ‘active forgetting’ to be able to get on with the business of life, before going on to look at methods of using skilful and discriminating remembering and forgetting in order to be able to improve our situations and reach our personal development goals.

Next Post: To Live is to Forget

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