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Forgetting

Max Stearns Nothing quite focuses the mind like imagining random loved ones, relatives and friends, suddenly contracting, and possibly succumbing to, Covid 19, the virulent Coronavirus, or even doing so oneself. I have watched with profound sadness, and heard from family and friends, of persons who have died from this illness years, even decades, before their time. And it has gotten me thinking about something we might not think about enough. Over the past couple of years, I’ve experienced four separate occasions in which I held a very specific recollection of something that happened quite long ago, only to learn, when revisiting it with the person involved, that this prominent personal recollection somehow wasn’t shared. None of my recollections were questioned. Rather, the memory proved less significant to the other person. The event was simply forgotten. Each of these, thankfully, were happy memories that I hoped to share years, even decades, later. The first involved a monetary gift by a relative at a moment of need on the understanding it was just that—a gift. Decades later, I let my relative know that I had paid it forward, with interest, to someone else in need. My generous relative didn’t remember the original gift. The second involved a relative who kindly provided access to his family’s kitchen so I could prepare food for a surprise party, and who provided an alternative lasagna recipe to the one I had planned to use. I have used that recipe, which my family has since come to associate with this relative, ever since. I recently reminded him of the incident, and he too had no recollection. The third involves a former law school professor who told my entering 1L class that in his decades of teaching, he had grown to realize the impossibility of imagining what it was like not to view the world with the training of lawyer. After relaying this insight to my own students, with attribution, I reminded my former professor who responded that although it sounds like something he might have said, he didn’t recall having said it. Finally, I once mentioned in a blogpost that a particular scholar was so prolific that a former colleague once said that he imagined an island of scholars collectively publishing in the man’s name. When I reminded my former colleague of the story, he said it sounded like him but that he didn’t recall ever saying it. Each of these persons is highly intelligent, and each generally has an impressive memory. Years ago, I became intrigued with the University of California at Irvine study involving persons with “superior autobiographical memory.” Such persons quite literally recall every waking moment of their lives from some specific, yet varying by individual, childhood age. One day I met a person with this trait. He explained that although some persons with the trait, such as Actress Marilu Henner, have led happy successful lives, it generally proved to be a painful burden for others. This is contrary to the idealized conception depicted in the TV drama Unforgettable. By way of example, this man explained that when going on dates, he was prone to vividly recollecting, at the most inopportune moments, troublesome past romantic encounters. Memories sometimes provide wonderful opportunities to reconnect with those in our past; other times they can simply be unbearably heavy. Our firmest memories are also not always precisely accurate. Early on in teaching, I graded a student consistently with a provision in my syllabus that I had not, until then, had a need to apply. Since then, I’d dropped that provision. Applying it resulted in a modest downward grade adjustment, which left the student extremely unhappy. This gnawed at me for years, actually decades. When attending a conference at my prior law school, I arranged to meet with the Registrar. I recounted the incident in detail, and asked if it might be possible, now over twenty years later, to retroactively readjust the grade upward. Of course, this wouldn’t matter to a student who had been out in the world for twenty-plus years, but it mattered to me. Although the Registrar surprisingly agreed, the problem was that my vivid recollection respecting the student’s name was so far off that even searching a five-year window yielded nothing. Those stakes were relatively low, compared, say, to the overwhelming story conveyed in the movie Atonement, based on the Ian McEwan novel, in which a fictitious girl cannot possibly seek forgiveness for something irremediable that she also could never forget. We all say and do regrettable things, hopefully without causing such permanent profound damage. Although most misbehaviors, slights, taunts, and the like lack dire consequences, the consequences can still matter, even in unexpected ways. At a fairly recent event, someone I had not seen for decades sought to later reconnect. He then profusely apologized for having been particularly unkind to me during a specific period in our childhood, a burden he had apparently carried for decades. I had no specific recollection even when reminded, and it was apparent that he was the one weighted down with this tremendous burden, which I urged him to let go. As I age, I have come to believe that the adage “forgive and forget” too often misfires. In some instances, the ask is unfair. There are some ancient hurts that the bearer should never be asked to relinquish, at least without an honest opportunity at mutual scrutiny with the person who caused it in an attempt to achieve greater meaning through wiser eyes and, one hopes, an attempt at sincere reconciliation. And even that isn’t always fair. It depends, of course, on many things: whether the original harm was intended, how intense and lasting the damage was, and, of course, the sincerity of the person seeking to be forgiven. But this doesn’t describe all past harms, and sometimes revisiting such harms risks greater damage than the original harm itself. And forgiveness sometimes most profoundly helps the giver, as part of acceptance or gained perspective over time. This is especially true when the person causing the harm is no longer alive. I have increasingly come to believe that a lot of the time, the largest and most generous gift, even greater than forgiveness, is letting the other person forget. An implication of the memory study is that for us ordinary recollectors, memories are constructed, not recorded and forever stored. A large part of construction involves recasting, including wholesale forgetting some aspects of our past that were they front and center, might risk compromising our core sense of identity, including whatever hopeful good we imagine our best selves bringing to the world. I certainly do not mean to disparage the therapeutic process by which fractured souls explore the sources of hurt, air past harms, and seek the more nuanced understandings that comes with age, including, when possible, reconciliation. This is often appropriate, even essential. But not always. I increasingly suspect that for a good many long-ago interactions, the more appropriate, and certainly more generous, course is to allow the other person simply to forget. We are all experiencing a truly profound crisis, one that affects virtually every aspect of our lives. There is a risk that people with whom we hold grudges—however justified those might be—might contract an illness that prematurely takes their lives, or that the illness might take our own. Certainly not all past wrongs warrant forgiveness or forgetting. Some past hurts cannot and should not be ignored. But I think we do well to ask ourselves whether some long-ago events that, in our minds, have come to define how we view, or even define, another person instead ultimately define us more. In law, we have statutes of limitations; in our personal lives there are no such rules. Bryan Stevenson famously inquired if it was generous and kind to define people, even serious offenders, by the worst moment in their lives. He was talking about persons convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death. I’m talking about persons whose slights, even serious harms, we carry like a dead weight, but who might have constructed their own memories differently in the hope of a better, more benign, understanding of their role in the world. Letting others forget might be the most generous gift we can give. I hope all my readers are doing whatever they can to stay safe and well. As always, I welcome your comments.


[Special thanks to my dear friend Abra Walter, a psychologist, for her thoughtful read of an earlier draft.]

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