One of the inevitabilities of life is life itself: if you don’t die, you’ll get older. Of course some persons do, ah, elude that development, though whether their course is the better one I must leave to individual judgement. I’m on one side, Deborah Harry’s on the other. Choose according to your tastes.
Western culture today is powerfully youth-oriented. Our media promote youth and its concomitants relentlessly. Many of us inspect ourselves daily for signs that we’re getting old. And many have recourse to all manner of treatments, from cosmetics to surgery, to main a youthful appearance. Some of them do a fair job, though seldom one that will last very long.
However, for the moment at least there is one sign of advancing age that no one knows how to erase…at least, while leaving the rest of one’s body and mind intact and functional. That’s the accumulation of a past, including one’s memories.
I don’t have the book to hand, but in one of her collections of short stories, the late Dr. Alice Sheldon, better known to her readership by her nom de plume of “James Tiptree, Jr,” mused over the dark ocean of memory and how it can affect the conduct of the aged. She noted that an older person is often slow to respond to a question, not because he’s deaf or senile, but because the stimulus can trigger a cascade of memories so great as to be temporarily overwhelming.
But of course, some memories are more pleasant than others.
One obligation of character that’s taxed me to the limit, and occasionally beyond, is that of forgiving. Christians are supposed to love their enemies, forgive them their transgressions, and pray for their well-being both in this world and in the next. (Cf. The Lord’s Prayer.) But forgiving can be a monumental challenge. The memory of a hurt can linger for decades, especially if it touches upon some aspect of oneself about which one is unduly sensitive.
At seventy years of age, my memory remains excellent, near to perfect for personal experiences. That’s a mixed blessing, to be sure. While I can quote you accurately from books I haven’t touched in fifty years, my memory of injuries and slights is just as deep. I’m still struggling to forgive some of them. I’ve often thought I’d be better off if I’d managed to forget them all.
Forgetting is a discipline few study and fewer master. “They teach us to remember; why do they not teach us to forget? There is not a man living who has not, some time in his life, admitted that memory was as much of a curse as a blessing.” (Francis Durivage) I haven’t learned how to do it, which has made a number of memories seem the curse of which Durivage speaks.
Yet it is not so. A memory of pain or insult inflicted by another person is a challenge to him who remembers: to understand, and to forgive. Many of us never surmount that obstacle to growth. But to wish it forgotten is still worse.
Some memories, of course, are pleasant ones. Indeed, some of those grow even rosier as one ages away from them. That’s why many elderly folks tend to “live in the past,” recalling, recounting, and re-enjoying those distant events perhaps more than their reality would have merited. It’s an especially strong temptation for those whose present is painful, solitary, or otherwise unenviable.
I was indulging in a bit of deliberate recollection just a little while ago: straining to remember all the cars I’ve owned. It was an impressive panoply of autodom. I greatly enjoyed owning and driving each of those vehicles when I owned it. In some cases, the acquaintance ended too soon: for instance, one car, a Saab 900S, was stolen from me and only recovered after it had been stripped to its chassis. But on the whole those are memories of happy times that I was pleased to revisit.
It was also an exercise in service to a contemporary development. One of the techniques some financial institutions use today, when a customer triggers a large transaction over the phone or the Internet, is to ask him whether he’s “ever been associated with any of the following cars.” It’s been inflicted upon me twice in recent years. On both occasions the list of vehicles included cars that I only owned in the formal sense: i.e., the owner de facto was one of my stepdaughters. I did remember those cars and those occasions. However, there was one, a car whose financing I only co-signed, that I didn’t remember…and that was enough to cause my bank to hold up a transaction involving many thousands of dollars.
Watch out for this, Gentle Reader.
Finally, a few words about an event that probably doesn’t happen to many. Indeed, it might be something only someone who writes voluminously – some would say excessively – would or could suffer. It involves a temporary lapse of memory I experienced a while ago.
I was conversing with a friend over the phone when he expressed a sentiment many would call controversial, but with which I agreed strongly. He phrased it with striking elegance. He spoke in a way that suggested that the statement ought to be particularly relevant to me. When I failed to respond at once, he said worriedly “Fran? Are you still there?”
“Uh, yes,” I replied. “I was just distracted.” My friend’s statement teased me long after we’d rung off. He seemed to think it would be a stimulus to memory…but as much as I agreed with the opinion it expressed and admired the elegance of its expression, I could not remember anything relevant to it. After tormenting myself with it for quite a long time, I resolved to think about it no further and turned to other things, albeit somewhat grimly.
It took several weeks before the statement resurfaced. I happened upon it entirely by chance, through a Google search for something else.
It was from one of my own essays.
Beware, Gentle Reader. The Internet’s memory is better than yours. Better than mine, at least. But do have a nice day.