Wednesday, September 28, 2005

[Essay] Memory: The Silent Killer

An important but subtle element that governs us is memory. At the shallowest level, it can be as simple as remembering a friend’s name. Yet memory is a pervading force, and it branches out to other aspects of our lives. If it wasn’t so vital, whether it be individual memory or collective memory, then why bother with history, with psychology, or simply keeping a journal?

Haven’t you been attracted to someone because they reminded you of someone else in your past, be it a friend, a lover, a relative? It’s not always apparent the first time you meet a person, yet it’s there: what’s beautiful about him or her? Sometimes, it’s the memory of a past life with someone else who shares the same qualities. It could be the way they talk, a physical feature, the gestures they make, or even their interests. Yet no two individuals are completely identical, and so this new person’s quirks will in turn cause you to be attracted to someone similar in the future. But it’s not always about love. It could also remind us to dislike certain types of people, to distrust them, and sometimes, to loathe them. When we quibble that we don’t like a certain person, yet can’t point our finger on what makes them untrustworthy, sometimes it can be rooted to a memory of encountering someone similar.

As for friendships, even the strongest bonds can be shattered by memory. Amnesiacs live out entirely new lives, make new friends, for previous shared experiences do not exist. Yet it does not always have to be something that drastic. In our daily lives, who do we think about? Perhaps one of the reasons why people don’t always keep in touch with each other is because we forget. And the insidious part of it all is that we don’t notice. It could be our best friend from high school, a teacher from college, or perhaps our nursemaids when we were babes. What impedes us is not malice or fear or laziness. Sometimes it’s memory, as their significance in our lives is encompassed by the all-too-important present.

But forgetfulness is not always the root of disagreements. Sometimes, we remember them all too well. Lovers might separate and claim that the other was not the same person they fell in love with. Here, the roots of memory take a firm hold, and anything short of it becomes faulty, unworthy. The same goes for our friends and family: we often like to remember them during their best. But some fall prey to constantly measuring them by that standard. And there’s the fact that memory isn’t always selective, and as much as we remember the good, we also recall the bad, and it lurks in our minds whenever we encounter them. It’s what makes betraying a trust so malignant: even if we forgive, we seldom forget.

We are temporal beings, and our only link to who we truly are lies in memory. Aside from our experiences in the present, the only thing that tethers us to the past, and some believe to the future, is memory. The reason we keep on doing something over and over again is because we recall our prior encounters with it. Learning would be impossible if it weren’t for memory, and indeed, we measure growth in terms of who we used to be. A man without memories is simply a man who lives for the present: who can say whether he’s matured or not? He cannot plan, he cannot save, he cannot expect. There is simply the now, with no past life to give him firm grounding.

And indeed, memory is the key to our identity. The reason why we’re so dedicated to unearth lost memories is because we believe they’re part of what makes us who we are. Have you ever tried to remember something, yet can’t? Don’t you feel the frustration in doing so? It doesn’t have to be an important event, it could be a trivial thing. Perhaps what you had for lunch, or what clothes your crush wore. Yet when it’s forgotten, it’s as if we’ve lost a part of ourselves as well. But this fact extends to more than the individual. Rewriting history is perhaps difficult because we’re modifying the memory of a nation, of a people. Unlike true memory, we can edit, delete, or even add to our past. Whereas our own memories are only subject to the biases of a single person, history is subject to the biases of a million narrators.

One of the questions a pacifist should ask is when do we start remembering in terms of a collective rather than as individuals? Whether it be as a person, a family, a state, or a nation, as long as we have these artificial boundaries, there will always be conflict. Memory thrives on shared experiences, and in fact what takes note of the differences we have. Memory is the ego, but for selfish creatures like ourselves, perhaps the only way to realize a lasting peace is to have one ego. That’s not to say we give up our individuality, but rather that we start thinking in terms of everyone and not just ourselves or our nuclear family.

Concepts like vendetta and revenge is only possible with the existence of memory. Yet when we ourselves make a mistake, we do not rise up in retaliation to our own body, but instead seek to correct ourselves, to not repeat the same mistake. As long as we think of ourselves as individuals, there will always be “the other”, a separate memory that needs to be assimilated, or failing that, destroyed.

Death is what gives memory a finality. We make our last recollections as we take our final breath. But the ironic thing is perhaps the fact that while individual memory ceases with death, collective memory is strengthened by a person’s death. The dead become part of the consciousness of the survivors. And if history is any proof, the deaths of hundreds, thousands, and millions take a firm foothold in the minds of people.

The question I ask is not whether we remember the past, but whether forgetting is a boon or a bane. As we witness innumerable horrors, is forgetting the ultimate relief, or does it plant the seeds for human error to repeat once again?