In Praise of Forgetting, by Jonathan Silin

We live in a world awash in facts and figures. Daily the media report on the sophisticated ways that corporations use big data to identify and track our smallest purchases and our larger political decisions. And who has not been at a dinner in recent years when someone has reached for an iPhone or tablet to settle a dispute — the exact number of Michael Phelps’s Olympic medals or the difference between median and mode. 

When the search for answers turns us away from each other and toward our individual screens, the pleasure of conversation is too often lost. The presence of so many screens in our lives challenges our tolerance for not knowing, for living with questions rather than so many answers.

Recently I have begun to think I would be happier if I knew less and were more empty-headed. Given the finite space in my aging brain or, more accurately, my limited ability to recall what I have already crammed into it, I want to forget more. More of the names and numbers, the passwords and coded identities we are urged to take on. 

Forgetting has gotten a bad rap, associated as it is with growing old and the absent-minded scholar. But perhaps there’s another story to tell. Perhaps forgetting and remembering are not opposites, one all good and the other all bad. Perhaps they are part of the same selective processes through which we become ourselves. We are constantly engaged in a curatorial project in which we edit our conscious thoughts in response to our life experiences. Forgetting is not an absence or lack but, as the German philosopher Hans Gadamer suggests, a condition of the mind that nourishes and promotes renewal.

Although my curiosity about forgetting is prompted by my age, 72, it might benefit everyone to do some serious housecleaning. I know that many of my age-mates are more given to serious anxiety about losing information than to playful quips about senior moments. We are members of the growing demographic of young-old, the graceless term that sociologists have given to those of us between 60 and 80, no longer middle-aged and not yet frail elderly. For us, senior is here and now.

In our youth-oriented culture, everyone wants to live longer but no one wants to age. I am different only in one regard — the pleasure I take in forgetting. Names of friends, entertainment celebrities, favorite songs and restaurants fly in and out of my brain as easily as the wrens that flutter in and out of the birdhouses that flank our bedroom windows. And I am happy to let it all go, as well might my younger friends and colleagues. 

I heard my first jokes about bad memory when barely 40. It was early, but my close friend Pat, who was always fast with a playful quip, taught me that it was okay to have senior moments in middle age as long as we redeemed ourselves with a touch of self-mockery. My initial panic about lost bits of information abated quickly when I realized that it was only a matter of an hour or a day, the pressure of the moment gone, that the missing information would make itself known. Always there, not always available.

Memory became a more serious matter in the following decade when, mired down in the practical and psychological tasks of caring for my two elderly and fragile parents, I turned to prescription medications to combat debilitating insomnia. Despite my best efforts to find alternative phrases, I began to miss essential nouns and adjectives, as well as simple information. For a teacher and writer whose life work has been closely tied to finding the right words, this new kind of forgetting was deeply troubling. Language is a central way we make sense of experience, and forgetting words seemed to signal a loss of control, if not of a meaningful world.

It was two decades later with the urging of David, my younger partner, that I was able to free myself from chemical dependency — no mean feat, requiring the support of both psychotherapist and cognitive behavioral therapist. Initially thrilled by the achievement of night after night of unmedicated sleep, it was only several months later that I recognized a slow improvement in memory affirming that I was not suffering from serious dementia.

Today, we are all on information overload. Living on the internet we have come to assume that we should be able to access facts and figures, ideas and history, in ever faster and more efficient ways. What about the virtues of slow thinking? Like slow cooking, slow thinking allows ideas to simmer, conflicting opinions to be thoughtfully weighed, and our tendency to rush to judgments short-circuited. Then we are better able to recognize that the important differences are not resolvable in evidenced-based arguments but are grounded in divergent worldviews. 

How often would we be better off for allowing new ideas to settle in, or experiences to ripen, before expounding on their meaning? With the 24/7 news cycle, how often in recent months have we seen politicians jump to comment on fast-breaking and profoundly disturbing stories without considering multiple perspectives and what might be revealed in time?

The Hungarian polymath Michael Polanyi reminds us that our most important knowledge cannot be articulated, written into manuals, shared on the internet. Tacit knowledge, built on our skills and ideas, is remembered in the body and precedes language. It is best conveyed to others through shared experiences. The way that David learned to garden by helping his mother when he was young, or the way, as a novice teacher, I watched my mentors go about the complicated process of orchestrating the day for 25 4 and 5-year-olds.

Over time, one of the essential lessons I learned as a teacher was about forgetting. Each summer, as the successes and failures of the preceding year settled into my tacit understanding of good teaching, I also forgot them. I did not want to be haunted by these memories in the fall. Nor did I read the voluminous reports handed to me, at least not at the start of the year. I wanted to meet each class with fresh eyes, to allow every student a new beginning. Forgetting affords that kind of forgiveness of the past.

Some I am sure will accuse me of sour grapes for putting memory in its place. But I prefer to think of it as a release from the burden of time, a newfound freedom that allows me to be more fully in the present. Sometimes a loss is a gain in disguise.

To be clear, I am not advocating the kind of social amnesia in which we forget the history of man’s inhumanity to man or the moments in which we have failed to stand up to social injustice. But we do not need to scold ourselves for daily lapses in memory. I suspect that when my brain is cluttered with scraps of information, even with other people’s valued knowledge, I am less creative and more likely to follow the tried-and-true paths. In allowing myself to forget, I hope to make more time and space for the new and unrehearsed, for a better then and there. 

And in the end, isn’t that what keeps us young and hopeful?

Jonathan Silin is a fellow at the Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies at the University of Toronto and a part-time resident of Amagansett.