Why forgetting might not be the best idea

There is a poignant scene near the beginning of the recent Harry Potter film. Having decided that her  ‘muggle’ (non magical) parents are at risk from the forces of evil and that they would be safer without her in their life, Hermione casts a spell over them to erase from them all memory of  her ever being their child. As the camera pans round the room Hermione’s image fades from every happy family photo and then she walks out the door leaving her parents in ‘blissful’ and safe ignorance.

It’s a desperately sad scene. I winced on behalf of any suicidal teenager who might be wishing they’d never been born or had ever thought ‘they’d be better off without me’.

I also winced for any bereaved parent. Not matter how sudden or dreadful your loss, surely no one deals with it by blocking out every evidence of their  loved one from their memory? Quite the reverse, memories and photos are what sustain us at such times.

‘Obliviate’ she had said as she raised her wand. But of course we all know that to ‘obliviate’ someone. something or some deeply traumatic incident is not possible. Or is it? The day after I saw the film I heard a radio discussion about the development of a pill that could make people forget a distressing memory. It’s only been trialled on mice so far so not much hope of it coming into use any time soon but, even so, it raised an interesting question: if you could take a pill to forget, would you?

The conclusion of the discussion was that memories be they good or bad are what make us who we are. You can’t change them, just as you cannot go back in time and make the painful thing not happen. The only choice that you have is how you choose to live with them. And it is exercising this choice that lifts people out of the mire of self-pity and bitterness and helps them live more generously and hopefully in spite of their bitter experience: the amputee who goes on to help other bomb victims, the cancer survivor who chooses to walk with others through their treatment.

I have no right to suggest that this is easy, I do not live with painful memories. I can fully understand the lure of oblivion, who needs a ‘forgetting’ pill when there is alcohol or drugs?  But I do not think the remedy lies in ‘forgetting’. Henri Nouwen convinces me that he understands pain when he says,

‘I am deeply convinced that each human being suffers in a way no other human being suffers. No doubt we can make comparisons,… but, in the final analysis, your pain and my pain are so deeply personal that comparing them can bring scarcely any consolation or comfort. In fact, I am more grateful for a person who can acknowledge that I am very alone in my pain than for someone who tries to tell me that there are many others who have a similar or worse pain.

But his surprising conclusion is this:  ‘that the first step to healing is not a step away from the pain, but a step toward it’.

A few weeks earlier on the same radio show a young man told the story of how he had lost his memory entirely following a motorbike accident. His older brother faithfully supported him every step of his journey back towards physical recovery and rewrote every page of his memory banks, providing him with a story of his childhood that was happy and normal. He completed accepted his brother’s version of their childhood and lived for the next ten years without questioning anything, knowing only an odd distance from his own mother. Then the mother died and the older brother fell apart and went into counselling over the vicious abuse they had both suffered at her hands as children. ‘Suddenly it all made sense’, he said. He still didn’t ‘remember’ the abuse (lucky man) but he understood himself better. Asked whether he resented his brother for lying to him, for reconstructing his childhood on a falsehood, he said he completely understood why he did it. He did it out of love, he did it to try to spare him.  But it’s only when we know the truth, that we can process it. How we wish it were possible to grow through an experience without remembering the pain of that experience.

Sadly that’s not possible but ‘stepping away’? Forgetting? Obliviating? That’s not the answer either.

One thought on “Why forgetting might not be the best idea

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  1. Thank you for yet another blog that hits the nail on the head. It took me a while to realise that the counselling I received earlier this year worked because it made me dig up the memories that I had been suppressing. I had assumed that my descent into depression was caused by events around me in the recent past but the roots were 40 years back in my teens and even as much as 50 years ago. If I had removed those memories I would never have been able to climb out of the pit of depression because I would never have been able to understand how I became the person that I am today.

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