Forgetting is vital

Where is our acceptance of forgetting and not knowing? We pillory those who publicly forget as not worthy of our consideration. We deride those who cannot hold copious facts in mind ready to spew forth on demand. They are judged less than worthy and not suitable for high office if they cannot recall that facts we demand. We are impatient too with those older than us who cannot remember names of life-long friends, favorite plants and what we came into this room for.

Yet when you think about it forgetting is a vital part of human experience. If we were to remember everything we experience we would be overwhelmed with such quantity of information that we could not function, could not be present to what is happening right now, or prepare for what will happen next. Savants who have phenomenally greater capacity to remember than most of us are inundated with so much information that they cannot sift it, cannot evaluate it for importance and often have difficulty doing ordinary activities such as eating, dressing, planning ahead without help.

Studies over decades have affirmed that we can usually hold 5-7 pieces of unrelated information in short-term memory. The volume of short-term semantic or meaningful memory is greater: If information has meaning we can relate significantly greater amounts of information, particularly if it is linked in a narrative. Hence a ‘memory palace’ is a technique often used to remember large amounts of information where items are placed in locations throughout the imaginary ‘palace’.

Forgetting is important. It is crucial as we age that changes in our memory that make names for people and things more difficult to recall, that we practice, use and sustain as much of our ability as possible. But it is also important to recognize that what is important changes as we age. In my 60s I am less driven by achievement than by doing the things I find meaningful and valuable to people I love and that i judge to be important, worthwhile. I am less focused on speed than on the quality of what I do. I am also better now at nuanced conversation, at assessing what is important from what is not. I am a better listener now than when I was twenty and knew everything. Changes in memory and thinking as we age mean that older people can be valuable sources of wise, considered thinking. Gotcha journalists prize finding the ‘weak’ spot, the ‘flaw’ in political candidates. But what this shows is that they are poorly led by a lack of older journalists whose job it used to be to teach and guide these enthusiastic young journos with the benefit of experience. These editors have been sacked, made redundant. But that is a blog for another time.

Then there are those of us who are deeply forgetful, those with developing dementia who are important because they can draw us closer to each other, in relationships of mutual acceptance and positive regard for our common humanity.

We must forget in order to function in daily life. We must let go of much of what happened yesterday so that we can be present to what is happening today. We must let go of what is less important than our main concern.

If we are the leader of a group or project it is important that we have a team of people around us who can have their eyes on the detail, the specifics. Our job as leader is to formulate the vision with the team and then maintain it, develop policy and explain the rationale for our project. If we have the right people in the right jobs we can rely on and utilize those in our team who have their eyes on the detail. Forgetting enables us to rely on others and to overcome our narcissistic impulse to think we can do it all on our own. Forgetting enables us to be part of a community with a common purpose.

Forgetting is not a flaw or weakness. Forgetting is vital.