Tuesday, October 05, 2021

Forgetting


I attended four different schools and lived in six different neighborhoods between the ages of five and 10. It could have been traumatic. Maybe it was, but I've forgotten. After all, over the course of my life I've forgotten much more than I remember. What I recall most about all that moving around is the excitement of starting anew with each passage. I'm sure I missed each of my past lives, but I've forgotten that as well, recalling only the sense of freedom that each move gave me.

To this day, I find myself craving significant transitions. They are unsettling, of course, full of moving boxes, different night time sounds, and making new friends, not to mention leaving all of the old things behind, but the clean slate also represents the potential for personal transformation, both large and small. 

Mom was always good about preparing my brother and me for our moves, hyping our new houses, towns, and schools, presenting them as exciting places upon which I could project the excitement of the new me. I would spend weeks imagining myself in these future environs, being, for instance, the kind of kid who was no longer shy or a boy that a girl might want to kiss. And an important part of that process was to forget.

 "I understand that forgetting can also be incredibly dangerous but there are times when the ability to forget and be forgotten is integral to social transformation." ~Kate Eichhorn, author of The End of Forgetting

In this modern world of data, it seems to me that it is becoming harder and harder to forget one's old self. Even if we forget, the internet will remind us. It's even worse, I imagine for the generation that is growing up online. Every photo ever taken is now preserved, every questionable choice, every misdeed or misstep is remembered. People are being fired for things they did or said decades ago. I worry that the clean slate is a thing of the past. I hope I'm wrong, but I worry how this will impact today's preschoolers as they seek to reimagine themselves only to have the past constantly resurfaced, for instance, by social media which never forgets.

"There's a rather large body of research in psychology that says . . . (that) forgetting most negative experiences is actually important to one's social identity development because if we remembered every shameful and humiliating moment, (we) would be immobilized," says Eichhorn. "I think it's important to forget because forgetting sometimes creates a bit of freedom to imagine yourself in a new way, to keep changing and growing."

This rings true in my life. 

There are those, however, who will assert that this kind of forgetting is in fact suppression or repression. And they would be right, especially when it comes to traumatic events that, if not dealt with, can result in unhealthy behaviors, emotions or even mental illness. Indeed, psychologists tell us that suppressing negative memories can actually block memory formation in the present and it is probably no accident that memory deficits are common among those suffering from depression or other mental disorders.

At the same time, as Eichhorn says, "the ability to forget and move on is also sometimes what enables people to adopt new perspectives, including perspectives that are important to social transformation and social change. It has personal implications but it also has broader social implications . . ."

Just as we worry about our youth's inability to escape through forgetting, the same concern can be expressed for us a society. Of course, we don't want to forget some things. "Never forget" is one of our greatest hopes against another Holocaust, but at the same time, I worry that the inability to forget will stand in the way of achieving the kinds of big and important social and political changes that we all know we need. Throughout most of history, for instance, a pandemic would have been exactly the sort of disruption that wiped the slate clean, leaving the way clear to transformation, both positive and negative, but our inability to forget, I fear, means that most of us will simply strive to return to what we think of as "normal" instead of envisioning a better tomorrow.

For too many of us, the purpose of "education" is simply to remember, to "learn" what one needs to pass the test, to "retain" knowledge, and to avoid "learning loss." If that is what schools seek to do, then I can assure you that in my case, they have failed miserably. I've forgotten far, far more than I remember from my school days. I feel safe in asserting this is true for all of us. No, from where I sit, education has less to do with remembering and everything to do with thinking. Remembering is very often what holds us back. It's the thinking that matters because it's through thinking, and sometimes forgetting, that we are able to make transformation happen.

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