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Self-Knowledge • Emotional Skills
The Benefits of Forgetfulness
We often complain that we have bad memories. We forget our house keys, the names of certain acquaintances and vital items from the shopping list. But what might count as a rank nuisance on a practical level turns out to be an unparalleled blessing on an emotional one. We are rescued from many of our sorrows not by active solutions or nifty work of the intellect but by our reliable tendencies to forget. Our minds are so constituted that the gravest incidents eventually slip from our grasp. We lose sight not only of the beautiful and kind things that have occurred – the bay of Naples at dawn, the taste of figs in autumn and the first night spent in the company of a lover – but also, more usefully, the catalogue of horrors that we were once certain we would never be able to surmount. However hysterical we may be, we can rely on the knowledge that we will soon forget what we are crying about.
When in his fifties, the great English literary critic and essayist Cyril Connolly discovered a Latin grammar textbook that he had had at around the age of 10, when he had attended a fashionable preparatory school in Eastbourne, St Cyprian’s. On the flyleaf of the book, he had written in his most careful script, ‘Never [underlined three times] forget
how unhappy you were today, February 11th, 1913.’ Now, many decades later, he hadn’t the faintest recollection of what had so deeply upset him on that distant day, even though it must have seemed as if it would burn forever in his thoughts, sending echoes of misery across the entirety of his existence.
Our habit of forgetting might feel like a betrayal. A part of us wants to remain eternally loyal to the sufferings that consume our thoughts and to which our identities can feel indelibly bound. But our minds are efficient, unsentimental places that need to clear space for novel experiences, so eventually even our worst recollections become hazy and
neutered. We might realise that years have gone by without having given a single thought to a mistake that we had once imagined would darken our lives in perpetuity.
We may lament our far-from-perfect memories, but we should be grateful for them. If we had a recollection of every occasion when someone had been unkind to us, of every slight that had come our way, every mistake we had committed and every hope that had been frustrated, life would swiftly grow untenable. Fortunately, we have been endowed with a special incapacity. The slate is always, gradually being wiped clean, ensuring that we end up ignorant of what once left us certain that we should end our lives by nightfall.