Forgetting is a way of forgiving yourself

Memory is an asset, but it is also subjective and does not offer a rational view of the events that shaped your life.


Anamika Chatterjee

Published: Mon 18 Jan 2021, 11:22 PM

On most days, I take pride in remembering every single detail of important events in my life. And then on some occasions, I am embarrassed when I forget to recall small things. The other day, for instance, a colleague attempting to set my eating habits right asked what I had had for lunch all week. I couldn’t remember. My partner later joked that the bland, home-cooked food was indeed forgettable. I laughed, keeping my paranoia to myself.

I fear forgetting things as much as I fear being forgotten. It took root after I lost many loved ones to Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. There is nothing quite as disheartening as seeing someone who once doted on you ask who you are. Or seeing them slowly and steadily descend into a void. Which is why, I make it a point to remember as much as I can, as far as I can. But lately, I have been wondering if forgetting has its own privileges.

The wisdom was borrowed from a podcast I heard recently. It was part of The Guardian’s audio long reads and explored a rare condition called Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM) that enables individuals to remember every single detail about their lives. The condition was first diagnosed in 2006 in a patient called Jill Price in the US. Give her any date and year in her life, and she would reproduce all that happened with precision. Over a period of time, researchers discovered a small group of people who’ve had the condition. Is it a gift or a curse? I can’t decide.

Let’s pose this question to ourselves — would we like to remember every aspect of our lives in as great a detail as Jill Price does? Moreover, what would that entail? Remembering the highest of highs, lowest of lows, smallest of disappointments, deepest of wounds, the difficult process of healing?

What I find comforting about forgetting — not in a clinical sense, but the more natural aspect of memory not being able to record every small development — is that it is also a way of letting go, a way for the mind to heal itself and remain hopeful. And it’s particularly useful when it comes to a bitter experience.

In college, I befriended someone who used to be as curious about literature and life as I was. In no time, we became good friends who would spend hours debating if Joseph Conrad was racist or if Paradise Lost was the greatest epic of all time. Both of us decided to pursue a career in journalism and change the world. The world didn’t change, we did. Our civil debates transformed into catfights. One day, a random debate on politics blew out of proportion, and in subsequent days, we grew apart. Our pride was hurt and neither cared to reach out.

It wasn’t until seven years later that I reconnected with this friend. Being a fellow admin of a writing group on Facebook, she sent a message on the social networking platform asking to be removed from it. I heeded to her request but not before asking how she had been all this time. In a matter of minutes, we were talking to each other like the friends we once were. Oddly enough, both of us had forgotten what exactly the trigger was that put an end to our friendship.

Would remembering each and every detail of that war of words dent our friendship now? Perhaps not, because it’s painful to look into the mirror and confront a dunderhead there. In forgetting what led to our fight, we’d redeemed ourselves.

Memory is an asset, but it is also subjective and does not offer a rational view of the events that shaped your life. Hence, revisiting what happened can bring joy or grief, depending on which end of the emotional spectrum you stood at that point. Even if it is far from desirable, forgetting some, if not all, aspects of our lives helps us start anew. It enables a regeneration that life does not afford us easily. For that reason alone, I am glad I forget a few things occasionally. It helps me forgive myself… and the world.

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