David Bouchier: Memory Test

May 31, 2021

Memory is one of the great mysteries — what we remember, what we choose to forget, and how our memories change with time and age. There are hundreds of books on the subject, most of them hard to understand and none that offer any clear answers. But even if we can’t yet understand the science of memory we can see how it works in everyday life.

It works, as we all know, selectively. We need memorials and memorial days because our personal memories are continuously edited on the “need to know” principle. Apart from those rare individuals who really can remember everything, most of us practice a kind of selective forgetting. For example, who remembers the last episode of Seinfeld, or the date that Ginger Spice left the Spice Girls? These events — earthshaking at the time — are already lost in the smog of history, because nobody needs to know, and very few care. The weight of the past is so great, and the mass of facts to be remembered is so immense, that we can only afford to preserve a few selected highlights. So our historical memories are like sound bites from the past — a phrase here, a carefully edited image there, a few names and dates, floating in a great void of forgetfulness.

This can be therapeutic. Forgetting helps us to focus on the present moment, and then to move on. We stay happy or at least sane by forgetting most of the bad and embarrassing things that happened in our own personal lives. But then there’s the important stuff, the stuff of history. We live in the flow of history whether we like it or not, whether we pay attention or not, and many dreadful things have happened. Should we forget all them too? What good does it do to cling to bad memories from the past?

With the single exception of the Civil War, this nation is famous for forgetting its history almost as soon as it happens, and not holding grudges against old enemies. On the whole this has been a very healthy thing, although it has resulted in politicians making the identical mistakes over and over again, especially in international relations, having quite forgotten, or never wanted to find out, what happened last time.

Memorial Day observance has declined, so that for most people it is just a long weekend, and this is only natural. As wars fade into the past, so do the memories, except for those who fought in them. Eventually they cease to be memories and become nostalgia or mythology, at which point they turn into movies and TV series, as the Second World War has done now, reassuring us about how brave and noble we were back then. One or two centuries slip by, and soon those conflicts are nothing but chapters in history books, and the occasional monument. History is scarcely taught in schools anymore, so we can expect that in the future we will have even fewer painful memories of any kind.

Memorial Day is about painful memories of war and sacrifice. So although the present moment may be full of sales and barbecues, this is one of the few days in the year we are expected to take at least a moment to remember what it is really all about, just in case we forget and make the same mistake yet again.

Copyright: David Bouchier