Trying to Forget (June 2006)

Saturday, 02 April 2011 02:23

Saga June 2006

Trying to Forget

‘So easy to remember and so hard to forget’ might be the words of an old romantic song but, alas, we all have memories that we’d prefer to forget. These are the memories that wake us from a deep sleep and fill us with an unnamed dread, or intrude upon the banal thoughts accompanying a simple task, or chill our hearts even when we are at our happiest. The events which we are remembering may have occurred decades ago but for our memory they are as yesterday. We can tell ourselves that we shouldn’t be so silly to waste time thinking of such things, and we can try to turn our minds to happier matters, but the memory will not let us go. Where do these memories come from, and how can we banish them from our minds?

When we talk about ourselves we use the words ‘I’, ‘me’, ‘myself’, and feel that somehow inside ourselves is that ‘I’, a person who thinks and acts. Yet this is a fiction, something our brain creates. When the Buddha became enlightened what he had discovered was that there was no little Buddha sitting inside him and that the self is simply a collection of thoughts, feelings, perceptions and actions. Many years later neuroscientists have shown that the Buddha was right. In his wonderful book Into the Silent Land the neuropsychologist Paul Broks wrote, ‘The brain has evolved systems dedicated to social cognition and action. It constructs a model of the organism of which it is a part and, beyond this, a representation of that organism’s place to other, similar, similar organisms: people. As part of the process it assembles a “self”, which can be thought of as the device we humans employ as a means of negotiating the social environment.’

In the assembly of our self there are the ideas about who we are and who we want to think of ourselves as being. All living things want to survive, but we want to survive not just physically but as a self. To do this we need to see ourselves as being what we want ourselves to be. We want to be acceptable to ourselves: we want other people to accept us: and we want to feel reasonably secure in the world we live in. Consequently our ‘self’ contains many ideas about how we can fulfil our three main aims.

What holds all these ideas together is our life story. Our self is constantly telling itself a story about itself. Like all stories, our life story is comprised of a beginning, a middle and an end, that is, a past, a present and a future (what we think our life is going to be). Our memories tell us about our past and thus define who we are now and what we shall become. Most importantly, our memories need to fit in with our aims to be acceptable to ourselves and others and to feel secure. The things we can’t forget are memories which do not fit in to our aims.

When we encounter a new situation (and every situation is a new situation because, even if you’re doing something you’ve done many times before, you haven’t done it on this particular day before), we make some kind of sense of it. Out of the sense we make of the situation we decide how to act. When the situation comes to an end we draw some conclusion about it, and that conclusion becomes one of the ideas which informs your self about itself. If the conclusion is one which fits in with the aims of your self then your memory of the situation and the conclusion you drew from it slide smoothly into the past in your life story. But if the conclusion does not coincide with your aims then the event and the conclusion you drew from the event will stay around, challenging your ideas about who you are and what the world is, until you can come to some way of understanding the event which does fit with your aims. Finding such an understanding can often involve having to change your ideas about who you are and what the world is.

Suppose you want to think of yourself as being a competent, helpful person who looks after those who cannot look after themselves. One day you are walking along the footpath beside a very busy road and you see a toddler break away from his mother and head straight for the road. You lunge forward to grab the child. If you are successful you hand the child to a grateful mother and proceed on your way feeling the glow of virtuous success. If you are not successful and the child goes under the wheels of a bus then every one of your aims has been thwarted. You are not the good person you thought yourself to be: you are a failure in the eyes of others: and how can you live securely in a world when a moment’s inattention by a devoted mother can lead to such a tragedy?

You feel despair and anguish, but, more than this, you feel your self shattering and falling apart. As indeed it must, because your self is made up of ideas, and this event has revealed that some of those ideas are not a reasonably accurate representation of what is actually going on. These ideas have to fall apart (which is why you feel that you are falling apart) and new ideas constructed which are a better representation of what is going on. Until you construct these new ideas this event cannot slide into your past and be forgotten. Every time your memory of this event comes into your mind it is demanding that you work on the business of constructing new ideas.

What stops you from completing this task can be your personal pride. You don’t want to accept that you no longer move as fast as you once did, or that you can’t save everybody who needs saving: you can’t bear that other people see you as a failure: you can’t summon up the courage to accept that the world is a chancy, dangerous place. According to the mediaeval Church pride is the deadliest of the seven deadly sins because it stops us from changing. When certain memories haunt us we need to ask ourselves, ‘What is it in this memory that offends my pride?’, and, when we find the answer and accept it, we can let the memory go.

Paul Broks Into the Silent Land Atlantic Books.