Self-Knowledge • Trauma & Childhood
The Healing Power of Time
There are plenty of awful things that, from the outside, we would imagine to be utterly unsurvivable: the end of our relationship, our sacking and disgrace, losing a leg or command over our bowels.
And yet one of the most remarkable features of being human is our conspicuous talent for making our peace with what one might initially have presumed to be untenable. However they might initially have responded, there are people who eventually come to terms with the loss of a spouse, who find a way to cope with ostracism, who make do with fewer limbs.
We cannot take too much of the credit at a rational level. We end up acquiring some of the melancholy calm of philosophers not through any particular effort of logic or reflection, but through the gift of time. We manage to fashion bearable lives for ourselves in the saddest of circumstances because we are blessed with very poor memories.
Psychology tells us that we aren’t devastated by everything that is unfortunate, only by that which is both unfortunate and in active conflict with our sense of how things should be, which contravenes what we had thought we could expect, which contrasts with our original hopes. We suffer so long as we continue to powerfully remember how we would have preferred life to unfold.
This is where nature is kind, for without us having to take any initiative, it automatically, very slowly, erodes the memories of our expectations and reconfigures our sense of what is normal, until this can encompass even the gravest tragedies. We forget the tenderness of the marriage we had been sure would last till the end; the good name and status that we spent three decades acquiring; the athletic limbs we had daily walked the world on.
We would never make it if we kept active in our minds all that we are destined to lose over a lifetime, if we were properly conscious of all the hopes of early childhood, the tenderness of our relationships, the promise of our careers, the vigour of our bodies. We endure because the marrow of what once was has the kindness to leave us alone.
This not only helps us to understand how we cope, more practically, it may help us to tame some of our anxieties about the future. We would naturally want love and work, friendship and reputation to succeed for us, but were they not to, we can take comfort from the sure prospect of our eventual forgetting of all more optimal alternatives. We will forget what it was like to want to write a novel or to be respected, to hope to be rich or to be young. What will at one point torment us with a sense of its barbarous contingency will, with time, become as much part of necessity as the earth and the sky, and as beyond question.
The future, even a very dark one, might be a lot less terrifying to behold, once we allow ourselves to appreciate our native, instinctive genius for forgetting.