The Privilege of Remembering

There are a lot of things I remember about life that were, quite honestly, humiliating. Things that I have thought that I would be quite content to never remember again. Moments in which I thought I was being “cool,” or when I was completely oblivious some social norm and thus ridiculed by those around me.

There are painful moments that I would have liked to have avoided, as well. Relationships falling apart despite my efforts to salvage them. Having a huge life choice implode, leaving me directionless. Watching family members die. Watching friends make poor decisions.

I don’t want to forget those moments, though. As much as they hurt, I don’t. I don’t want to forget the stupid mistakes I’ve made, either, because that’s how I know to not duplicate them. I don’t want to forget my stubborn refusal to let go of negative things at times, even though I know they’re wrong. I don’t want to forget this because I plan to win over those impulses one day.

And, most of us have watched someone…or we know someone who has…struggle with the demon of Alzheimer’s. The terror that comes with not knowing one’s place in the world, to not be able to remember one’s past.

There’s a point to all of this rambling. The point is this article that I read over the weekend. To summarize (but read the article, because this is stuff that you need to know), research has built on existing knowledge of how memory works (from a bio-chemical perspective), discovered that chemical reactions can be selectively targeted, and, with the application of proper pharmaceutical intervention, be disrupted, resulting in (theoretically) the ability to obliterate memories with precision. Yes, this article is from a reputable source, Wired Magazine. Like I said, read it.

You’ll find that they specifically cite the potential applications to addiction recovery. I suppose that makes it sound attractive. I’m left, though, with a sinking feeling, a mind reeling with so many reactions that I’m not certain where to begin.

When I reached my epiphany about the beauty of inter-disciplinary thinking, it came with the realization that I didn’t have to choose any of the plethora of interests that I had explored in my life, academically or vocationally. I realized that all of them could work together. This came from remembering all of the experiences that I have had with them. Some of those experiences were painful at the time, and I would have rashly chosen at one point to forget them if I could have. Those experiences, however, make me who I am, and, were I not able to remember them, I would find myself quite adrift. I would be quite a different person. One could say (arguably) that the person that I am would cease to exist.

Of course, this pre-supposes that one recognizes personhood as more than a physiological reaction of chemicals and electrical impulses, that personality and mind and emotion are recognized as being more than the sum of their parts. The article references that many things can no longer be taken for granted when the reality of memory is questioned. This smacks of a post-modern philosophy. What I’ve always found unusable about post-modern philosophies such as this one is that the assumption that each individual can create their own referent of reality leads to a complete disintegration of cultural ethics as a natural end result. That is, the assumption that no such thing as absolute truth exists holds the attraction that no one needs to be wrong, yet holds the potential for a seriously slippery slope to questioning the societal foundations that are the boundaries between us and anarchy. It seems that this philosophy is coloring supposedly impartial scientific research in this case.

Empiricism has it’s value, but I’ve expressed my concern previously that we worship science at the expense of the humanities. Not everything can be enslaved to logic. Passion, emotion, the arts, spirituality, all have enormous value (and, ironically, this has been proven in empirical studies). Most religions that I have studied intentionally place emphasis on markers. That is, observances or physical structures designed to help one remember an event. This is built in to these religious systems because there is a danger perceived in one forgetting these events. Whatever your religious bent, or absence thereof, I would argue that there is something to be valued in this practice. This is why we build monuments to wars and national tragedies…to remember those who have fallen, to recall why events occurred, to observe our history, lest we doom ourselves to it’s repetition.

A widespread application of this pill, either for it’s minimal benefits or it’s potential evil in the wrong hands, seems to me a hellish, cyberpunk nightmare come true. Our rush to medicate away every problem because we perceive it as an easier solution than doing the difficult psychological work of dealing with an issue, has led us to this: a surgical removal of a critical part of what makes us human. Even our traumas give us something that we can build upon to be stronger. When we examine the things that form us into human beings, especially into human beings of character, I am hard-pressed to conclude that the easy events are ever the most positively formational.

I remember an episode of Heroes in which a character known as “the Haitian,” who had the ability to erase memories at will, was partnering in an interrogation of an older gentleman. At the instruction of his partner, the Haitian erased the memory of the day the old man had met his wife. A look of horror went across the man’s face as he whispered, “I can’t remember…” I’m still shaken as I remember this scene. The calculating manner in which such a supreme torture could be administered, and the devastating, lifelong harm it would cause. To have the memory of one’s dearest loved ones and family removed is the most horrific abuse of power that I can imagine. I see little difference in someone doing it by choice: our science has merely empowered us with a new manner with which someone may cut apart their lives and reduce their humanity (likely regretting it later), and potentially do it to others, as well.

I’m struck with Lewis‘ profound observation that, just because we can do something, doesn’t mean that we should. We worship our ability to construct our scientific advances and assume control of every aspect of our frail human existence, falling before its altar as we look to it for deliverance, praising the perception of power that we think we have given ourselves.

We look to the construction of our own designs for salvation. I fear we will find it an insufficient savior, indeed.

Assuming we remember that we tried.


  1. I just watched a movie right before Valentine’s day about a woman who loses 5 years of her life through memory loss. It really made start thinking about this – about how precious our memories are.

    By the way, you may have appeared to lost a follower, but I just changed it to anonymous, so I am still here. 🙂

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