Although all the other parts of our lives are perpetually changing, at least one thing is truly stable: the past. Even if we have no idea who we are or who we want to be, we can always remember who we’ve been.
Despite having been overwhelmed about starting UC Berkeley, I’ve still found time to get sentimental. I’ve recently felt the urge to visit spots around San Francisco I haven’t been to in years, to reminisce about all the crazy experiences I’ve had with my friends, to dig through all my old stuff and try to imagine what everything once meant to me. This week, I seem a hundred thousand times more likely to burst into tears during sad parts of a movie and infinitely less ready to move out of my house.
But I do have a question as I wistfully stroll down memory lane: As we embark on our futures, how valuable is it to try to remember our pasts?
Memories are a huge part of our lives. Whether we recognize it or not, everything we are relates to something we’ve learned; it’s vital for our sense of identity to remember all the things that we’ve done. Yet, it’s so easy to forget things that have happened, it almost seems natural — we have too many things to think about, too many new things to learn, to continuously revel in that which we already know. With everyone always talking about how valuable our memories are, how precious they are, how life is nothing without them, how they are all we have in the end, this forgetfulness could be construed as tragic.
But while I agree that certain memories must be cherished, I do think that reliving the past — at least in excess — brings about more harm than good.
Holding our memories in such high value is problematic because it’s only natural for us to distort them — we’re prone to seeing the past as some distant world where everything just felt a little better. The past always seems to carry a rosy tint, even though we can consciously recall unhappiness: We tend to remember the past as being much brighter and simpler than it actually was. Living in the past with that rose-tinted vision makes it more difficult to get through the monotony of real, everyday life, because memories — even the bad ones — now seem better than they really were.
Too much attachment to our memories can keep us from living our lives by giving us an impossible goal: the recreation of our glorified pasts.
At the opposite extreme are people who don’t necessarily want to remember. Last year, I met this remarkably sweet woman; from talking to her about her new life, one would never know that she had been forced to completely re-imagine herself in hopes of pursuing a brighter future. As she opened up about herself, she tearfully revealed that she was hiding from a dark past, one full of abuse and neglect, insecurities and attention-seeking behaviors — and eventually drug addiction and sexually transmitted disease. She knew she couldn’t take back the mistakes she had made, so she distanced herself from her past and gave herself a chance at taking back what was left of her life.
Regret like hers is fairly well understood; we are only human, and we make mistakes. If we are unwilling to let go, there may be no hope to recover from the damages done. And we must recover — for the sake of our sanity and well-being, we simply have to escape our demons to keep living. “Not the power to remember, but its very opposite, the power to forget, is a necessary condition for our existence,” said Jewish novelist Sholem Asch.
I’m not sure if we should — or even could — completely forget, but I believe we absolutely must let things go.
Especially when regrets reach a more global scale. We know that we should learn from history’s mistakes; forgetting the past is unacceptable. The danger is not in remembering; rather, the danger is in unwillingness to forgive.
Some events leave such an impact on us that we just want to hit someone; that’s what my friend told me it was like when his father was killed in 9/11. When we feel wronged, “forgive and forget” seems intolerable. Yet, if we live by Hammurabi’s “an eye for an eye” rather than Gandhi’s “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind,” we’re going to detonate the world.
Reliving the past again and again does more harm than good; there’s nothing you can do to change the past, just as there’s no way to bring it back. We’ve got to keep moving on, at both a personal and a global level — in the end, there’s nothing else to be done.
But we can never forget. The past is the one thing in our lives that is truly stable, and even when we have no idea who we are or who we want to be, we must always remember who we’ve been.
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