If We Remembered Everything

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(Have I used this picture before? I think I’ve used this picture before. With a better work ethic, I’d look and make sure.)

Here’s another one of those posts that has both nothing and everything to do with the ostensible subject of this website. It’s been sitting in my Drafts file in pieces for two or three years, and it still seems a little undercooked, but sometimes you gotta hit “publish” and move on.  

We think of consciousness as the vehicle that makes it possible to perceive the world around us. But what if consciousness is actually a filter that screens out the world around us? (This isn’t an original idea of mine: I read it someplace years ago and I can’t remember the name of the author, but if you google “consciousness as a filter,” you’ll find that lots of people have noodled with the idea.) The point is: imagine the chaos of life in a world where one perceived all that is perceptible, all at once—if you could hear the blood coursing through your veins, if you read every shade in the carpet beneath your feet, if you felt all the sensations of a summer’s day, and you were conscious of every iota of it during every moment.

You’d go mad. Maybe consciousness helps us prioritize all that is perceptible, and it does so by shutting many sensations out.

Memory may work the same way. What if we remembered everything? Be very careful before you sign up for it, because however useful it might be never to forget a name or a face, or how attractive to remember every detail of your life’s greatest experiences, it also means that you will be conscious of every failure, every loss, and every bit of every bad thing that ever happened to you, forever.

You’d go mad.

Consider (because this is my website, and you are already well-acquainted with the runaway narcissism herein), 16-year-old me, up in his room listening to the radio, on a summer evening.

If you asked him, he would tell you he’s got troubles.

To wit: the local radio station, which made noise in the spring about hiring him to start fulfilling his dream, has gone silent on him, and an expected job offer hasn’t come. And because he has no other job prospects, he has to work on the farm, work that he hates and hoped to escape. As this summer begins, he has no immediate prospect of female companionship, which is a problem because A) it limits his social life to hanging out with the guys, and B) it presents the more chemical problem of having no opportunity to experience the female form at closer than a respectable distance. And on a metaphysical level he realizes, as much as it is possible for one to realize such a thing in one’s 16-year-old self, that he’s a little eccentric, a bit of a nerd, and goofy-looking, with his long hair, chubby cheeks, and a frame one might charitably describe as “chunky”—and he wishes that these things were not true. He wonders if the reason he laughs at himself first is to make people laugh with him instead of laughing at him.

It is probably good that the older me can see only the outlines of all that. Same for the memories of your troubles, from when you were 16, or from last month, or last year. The pain that could come from remembering in detail might be unendurable.

Like consciousness, memory must be a filter. Our best memories enrich our lives for as long as memory lasts, but the fact that we don’t remember everything may be a more important factor in keeping us going. We eventually forget the raw, ravaging grief we feel after a loved one’s death. We forget anger or rage felt toward someone who wrongs us, or the shame we feel after wronging someone else. We forget the embarrassment when we make a complete ass of ourselves. If we could not, we’d never get past the pain, the guilt, the suffering.

In the end, a haze settles over most of what happened to us. It allows us to see the outlines but obscures the details. And considering what the details could do to us, it’s hard to see the haze as a bad thing.

3 thoughts on “If We Remembered Everything

  1. Scott Erickson

    Certainly a double edged sword. As I’ve gotten older I’ve found it’s interesting that people bring up memories involving me that I have no recollection and vice versa. It happened during my trip to Wisconsin last week.

    1. Ain’t that the truth. I recall a conversation from years ago in which the other person and I both remembered the what, but our recollections of the details did not match up at all, to the point at which it seemed like we’d had two totally different experiences in the same place and time. It makes me wonder just how many of our memories we can actually trust.

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