“The Art and Power of Forgetting”1
In “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life,” Nietzsche criticizes the celebration of memory and demonization of forgetfulness, inviting us, rather, to consider forgetting as a positive capacity, as an art requiring practice and skill which, done well, contributes to a healthier way of being.
As my friends and I age past 50 we often talk about memory loss, about the increased frequency of lost keys and glasses, and about the inability to recall words, names and memories with ease. We all feel a similar, practical frustration. We all fear a future in which we cannot recall the names and faces of family and loved ones. Forgetting is an irritating, embarrassing nuisance and possible harbinger of future dementia. Memory is one more thing in a long list titled ‘Things I had when I was Younger and Didn’t Appreciate’.
My sense is that our understanding of memory loss is oversimplified; the aging brain, we hear, losses capacity just like our muscles, or like an old computer. But perhaps there is more to memory loss. Maybe the loss of memory can be the key to overcoming the memory of loss, and of all the other painful experiences which haunt us as we age.
Recently, while looking through photos from a trip I took many years ago, I was reminded of a particularly painful incident which had cast a shadow over what should have been a wonderful experience. Though able to recall the incident now, it is no longer a constant source of pain; while not completely forgotten, it is also not involuntary and constantly remembered. What prevents reaching that point in the course of memory and forgetting sooner?
Consider memory as the history of a person. Just as history is not the totality of events in the past, but rather the conscious selection, study and interpretation of relevant past events, memory is not the simple recall of everything that has ever happened to us. Memory is the intentional selection of certain events for interogation and interpretation.
We are certainly familiar with the idea of making an effort to remember practical information (where I put my glasses) as well those things we force ourselves to remember to attain success in school or work. Though we cannot (most of us) always remember everything we try to, the fact is that at least some (most?) of what we remember is things that we have selected to commit to memory. But how does memory select? Our memory is part of our identity, not an alien force, so the question is really how do we select what to remember and what to forget? What kind of identities are we constructing (or expressing, depending on your view of identity) when we choose to remember certain incidents and choose not to remember others?
We are also familiar with techniques for remembering. As students we spend much of our time memorizing facts, while all of us are constantly engaged with the increasingly important task of recalling passwords- or the method we created to remember our passwords, or the name of the secret document in which we wrote down the method we created to remember our passwords.
On the other hand, how familiar are we with making an effort to forget? And what techniques are we taught to remove unnecessarily painful memories from the forefront of our consciousness?
I think it is a mistake to think forgetting is simply what happens when we don’t choose to remember.
As I age, I am becoming increasingly skilled at forgetting, and increasingly willing to embrace the art and power of forgetting. While I don’t love forgetting where I put my glasses, choosing to forget an unkind word or unpleasant experience is very freeing. While aging helps in the process, there are also helpful forgetting techniques: don’t mentally rehearse things you want to forget, say the thing you want to forget out loud until there is no emotion attached to it, and resist the temptation to interpret things- a word is easier to forget than an ‘unkind’ word, for example.
I may not remember your name, but this doesn’t have to be a bad thing. as Nietzsche concludes: “The advantage of a bad memory is that one enjoys several times the same good things for the first time.”2
– Andrew Sewell