The Art of Memory
There is an old joke about some elderly immigrants who are arguing over how a ritual was performed decades before in the old country. Exasperated they decided to go to the oldest member of their group who was 97. The old man replied, that while he could not remember how the ritual was performed, he could remember the contention and bickering.
What you remember as your life narrative unfolds is usually a choice. As events occur, you decide which aspects, which pictures and words you should give prominence, mull over and carefully file and which to ignore, implicitly and neglect. You can for example choose to dwell upon and consequently remember the one occasion someone wronged you or the many in which they showed kindness. You tend to take the good in your life for granted and therefore do not focus upon it or take care to place it carefully in memory for future recollection. It is as if good is the accepted norm and bad is what stands out as something to focus on and grapple with. You tend to believe that memories of bad will serve you in some way, as if they could help to make things better in the future. All they in fact do is cause you to continuously contaminate the fresh present by re-evoking the stagnant past. Remembering disappointment, hurt, resentment, betrayal and deprivation keeps you inner world bitter cold.
Behaviour is determined by the future not the past as most people believe. You remember things from the past because those memories, you believe will serve you in terms of some future purpose. The first step to refreshing, renewing and reinvigorating your life is to confront how the destructive memories not only do not serve or protect you but actually cause you harm. Rather making life better, they ensure that the future remains consistent with the past. Getting rid of old negativity will leave an empty space in your awareness. You need to actively and intentionally choose to populate that space with thoughts and feelings that make you feel in life the way that you prefer to feel. You can do this by first recollecting from your past history and relationships all that was good and positive, no matter how thin the memories. Then make a conscious effort to focus upon, richly describe and savour the good that happens daily in your life. Every moment of goodness needs to be framed and carefully placed in memory as if it is a precious gift. The all that seems to go wrong needs the part that you overlook and ignore. Place in your memory at every moment only what you will later wish to look back upon and enjoy.
Retirement Homes are overlooked and much neglected repositories of warmth, wisdom and insight. I was paying regular visits to an old people’s home with my then seven year old son. Each time we met a gracious lady who used to sit on a bench in the garden. She would greet us in the same manner, introduce herself and then proceed to tell us the same story about her life and background that she had told us on the previous visit only a few days earlier. After a few days, my son said to me “Miss G is so lucky-she gets to make new friends everyday”.
It became instantly clear to me from this profound observation, that both remembering and forgetting can be either a blessing or a curse. It was clear from the start that all Miss G remembered, apart from the basic facts of her earlier history, was that the world is a good place, people are kind and that you have to be kind to them. I knew this because besides the factual information, the attitude that she embodied through her way of being showed that this is how she had led her life.
The values that she had most consistently practiced were part of her fundamental approach to the world. With no short term memory and therefore no other reference point other than her long term enduing beliefs about people and the world, kindness and trust remained her overriding approach.
Every person has the experience of complete forgetfulness every day. It occurs during sleep. You awaken each morning from this forgetfulness and have to reconstitute your life from memory. You have to remember who you like and who you don’t, who has wronged you and who you respect and admire. Herein lies a great gift with unlimited possibilities for a life of happiness, well-being and good will. Unlike Miss G, who happens to be fortunate enough to be left with good after almost all memory is lost, you can choose which memories to retain and which to let go of. In order to hold ill-will towards another, especially in the face of that person being nice, you have to dig deep into your memory bank and pull something from the past and bring it into the present in order to recreate the bad feelings.
Imagine if you could just forget the past, and respond to the person purely in the present, supposing that they are sincere and acting with genuine good faith. Think of the world that you would prefer to live in if all your explicit memory got lost. Now think of what you would need to remember to forget in order to create that world.