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The Art of Forgetting

by Roberta

It’s never pleasant, losing one’s memory. You feel somehow less in control of yourself, like you’re missing a part of you which had been there once and no longer is. No, it’s never a good thing. Or is it?

Our memory is essential for day-to-day living. You could say we need it to survive, independently at least. What would we do if we routinely forgot we have lessons to attend, a task that needs to be done, plants to feed or friends and family that relied on us for support? Yes – it is without a doubt a cornerstone of our civilisation. Without memory, society itself would probably collapse. But let’s take a step back – we don’t need to go into apocalyptic scenarios here. All we need to do is close our eyes for a moment and imagine we woke up with our memory wiped clean. It’s scary isn’t it?

Our tragedy lies in the exact opposite however – we remember everything.

By everything I don’t mean remembering what Louise was wearing in sixth grade on the day of your birthday. I mean remembering moments that make us frown, trivial memories that are insignificant and immaterial but which we still store, for some reason or another, deep down in our psyche. You would probably remember what Louise wore on that day in sixth grade, if she displeased you in some stupid way.

Our minds are terribly, beautiful things. They operate in ways we still cannot comprehend and like all terribly beautiful things, they are powerful enough to feel like they are out of our control. When something maddening, sad or frustrating occurs, we tend to be able to retrieve it much quicker than we would anything that was happy or at least, peaceful. It’s like our minds are designed to think that happy is the rule and sad is the exception. We know this is not the case and yet we act like it were.

It’s funny though. You would understand this storing of experiences if it brought us some form of satisfaction or made us feel happy in a twisted kind of way. And yet for the most part, it doesn’t. It leaves us with a bitter after-taste, like wine gone sour after being left in the open for too long. We pull back in disgust.

But we do know why we remember the bad, don’t we? We store horrible experiences so we don’t repeat them, or at least, try not to repeat them. Like the dog that got stung when it got too close to a cactus. We remember so we are not hurt again.

And yet these angry thoughts, they simmer in the deep and leave us with a sense of unrest. We wish we could do something about it but very often, the memory and feelings we harbour are even more powerful than the actual act itself. Do you remember exactly what Louise had done to leave you embittered years later? Or is it just a vague memory about a cake and maybe a gift and – was your teacher also involved? Your emotions have been magnified over years of ruminating darkly , chewing the memory over again until nothing is left of it. Just a feeling that something was not quite right, but it’s enough to cloud your thoughts for a moment.

Sometimes it dawns on us how stupid we actually are for being angry at this or that but very often we just take it in our stride, adding it to an already large luggage of immaterial, unhappy memories. Although on their own they wouldn’t make much of a ripple, all these small dark thoughts weigh heavier and heavier with each passing year. The ripples grow bigger and reach further than ever before.

Wouldn’t it be just magnificent to be able to open the doors to that dark place in our mind, and clean all the cobwebs out? Wouldn’t we all live in a happier place if we could? Oh yes, without a doubt. But that takes resolve and a whole lot of courage.

It is an art, or science, or whatever you want to call it, to forget.

It is not easy and most of the time, it feels impossible. I wish I could say I mastered it, that I can give you instructions, plans, how tos, checklists… but I can’t. And.I proabbly wouldn’t even if I knew because I am not you and it would be insulting to pretend to know exactly how your brain functions. Yes, despite a memory which seems to love letting me down every so often, I also still clutch to a handful of dark straws. I want to let them go but it’s not easy.

So what can we do to master the art of forgetting? How do we let go?

  • I’ve found that time helps, if only to help the memory grow fainter and fuzzier at the edges. Of course, the less we think about it the better but very often, the one thing we don’t want to remember is the one thing which jumps out, unexpectedly, from a box of memories we’re carting around. Our mind is vicious like that.
  • So I help counter that by extracting what I’ve learnt from it. By focusing on the good, no matter how small, I can feel slightly better, smoothing out the frown, finding it easier to movie on.
  • I count three blessings I enjoy today to that one bad memory from 8 years ago, and realise how little it weighed in the grand scheme of things. Very often, its is just a matter of perspective.
  • I put myself in someone else’s shoes. By thinking of my memories objectively, devoid of emotions, I can more easily recognise the ones that matter and the ones which are just weighing me down needlessly. Or, if that’s too hard, I get someone to hear me out, recounting the incident in an unbiased way (as much as I can at least). They will most probably be able to identify straight away whether something needed working on, or whether letting go of it will probably help you more.

So you see, there are things you can do.

Of course, not everything is as easy to fight, and putting everything under one umbrella never helps. Trivialising exceptionally traumatic experiences is not the aim here: these experiences will leave scars that are impossible to heal. But we can lighten that box we carry if we learn to clean out the smaller stuff. The needless, the insignificant, the immaterial. They choke us like weeds but even weeds have flowers. If we learn to separate the good from the bad, we can grow.

Maybe the art of forgetting is not for everyone. Maybe there are people who thrive in shallow, muddy waters that obscure the vision and limit growth. But most of us crave the open sky. And to fly, we need to let go of what bogs us down. Then perhaps, we can find happiness.

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