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Self-Knowledge • Emotional Skills

Why We Require Poor Memories To Survive

Generally, our culture takes a very positive view of memories and the act of remembering: we esteem the study of history, we are expected to take photos to capture precious moments; we think that old injustices should be made good in the present; we promise not to forget old acquaintances and we try hard in psychotherapy to reassemble the emotional essence of our childhoods.

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But without denying the value of any of this, it pays to honour the idea that in order to survive, we actively also need to do something else: forget. Certain memories threaten to destroy the future – and our capacity to exist. If we held onto everything that had ever happened to us in all the technicolour vividness of the original event, we’d be overburdened with anxiety and sadness, we’d be continuously terrified and consumed with regret: we’d be driven to despair by all the meanness we’d encountered, all the stupidity we’d been guilty of and all the beauty and goodness we had lost. To have a poor memory belongs, in many contexts, to survival.

In the 1870s, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche circled this theme in an essay called The Uses and Abuses of History for Life. Though Nietzsche was himself a brilliant historian and hugely aware of political and social history, he also came to recognise that forgetting was essential to a capacity to thrive, at both an individual and collective level. As he put it:

There is a degree of insomnia, of rumination, of the historical sense, through which living comes to harm and finally is destroyed, whether it is a person or a people or a culture.

Nietzsche attributed the vigour and natural stoicism of animals to their ignorance of the past. If a cow knew all that had happened to her forebears, her life would feel impossible, the philosopher speculated. Analogously, he proposed that children can be moving to us precisely because they aren’t burdened by the memories and regrets that start to dampen the spirits of anyone past the age of twenty-five; nothing much has yet happened to the very young and, therefore, so much more seems possible.

Nietzsche was approaching a radical but properly constructive question: what’s the point of thinking about the past? His answer was precise: we should remember only in so far as it actually helps us to live in the present. To the extent that memories assist us in forming our plans and avoiding error, they are valuable, but when memories function as obstacles to better lives, we should put our energies into the business of forgetting.

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The best way to forget is not just time, but – more exactly – events. So as to separate ourselves from the things that haunt us, we have to ensure that we can lay down a dense layer of events between us and they; we need – in short – to make stuff happen.

This is particularly true after a bad breakup, when certain places, times of day and activities remain tightly linked to the past and constantly evoke it painfully:

– Whenever we see the pizza restaurant, we are agonisingly carried back to memories of cosy Sunday evenings there together.

– Riding our bike down the canal triggers thoughts of energising trips we made there on balmy days.

– The cushions on the sofa jab us with pain by reminding us of the way they’d use them when reading at night.

We’re surrounded by emotional tripwires. Our heart breaks again and again.

We cannot, as we might at points want, get rid of the world in which the relationship once played itself out. We can’t burn the cushions or uproot the restaurant. To forget, we have to impose a new layer of experience on the things we associate with lost love. We should take a new group of friends to the pizza place, sit at side of the canal with a kind of book that particularly impresses us or get fresh acquaintances to hang out with us on the sofa. We have to reclaim the material of our life from the person who broke our heart.

With a new commitment to forgetting, we should recover some of the hope of the child and the fortitude of an alpine cow.

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