The Kindness of Forgetting

This week I witnessed something I had previously only read about: the sudden onset of temporary amnesia. 

My friend recently lost her daughter to a brief but devastating illness. She had watched her daughter die. The pain of losing her child eventually became too much to bear, and her brain stopped remembering that it had happened. She knew who she was and where she was, but she had forgotten that something terrible had happened to her precious offspring. My friend seemed to have a vague sense that something was amiss, but she declared that she didn’t understand what had happened to her daughter or why she was far from home. Nothing made sense.

Eventually, after several hours of persistent questioning and answering, her memory returned. The next day she had no recollection of having lost her memory.

The human brain, as we freshly discover every day, is a marvelous thing. But like an engine that becomes overheated or a computer drive that’s overtaxed, it must occasionally be shut down to protect it from blowing up. We must rest it with regular sleep, and we mustn’t force it to process too much pain or misery. Throughout a lifetime of experiences, some wondrous, some awful, our memory gradually absorbs a panoply of sensations and ideas; unlike a computer disk, the brain never becomes full. Indeed, scientists tell us that most people use a small fraction of their brain. We’re almost never in danger of running out of memory.

When a particular memory is unbearable, however, we seem to have an ability to create a temporary file of sorts, a cache where we store the unpleasant thought while the rest of the brain continues to function as normal. This response, as I observed it this week, is involuntary. The brain does it for us.

What if, however, we were able to forget voluntarily? What if all the pains and disappointments in our life could be manually segregated into a shadow vault, where history remains the same but our experience of it is selectively ignored? This kind of therapeutic forgetting would make us far less wise. But we would likely be far happier, a jolly bunch of smiling naifs, oblivious to the bad things that have happened to us and the world we live in.

The rallying cry of Holocaust survivors is, “Never forget!” Perhaps forgetting is sometimes the kindest thing we can do for ourselves.

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