Self-reinvention: Harnessing the power of forgetting

In many accounts of personal identity, there’s an emphasis on the critical role of memory to lash together, and hold firmly in place, our sense of who we are. In the midst of the unrelenting and inexorable changes, memory provides a sense of consistency, both to ourselves and others, assurance that who I am now is also who I was ten years ago, and ten years before that, even if I don’t always feel myself to be that earlier version of me.

We mourn the loss of memory for good reason. Forgetting the face of a long-dead friend or sitting with a parent who no longer knows our name can feel like the very essence of tragedy. In a way, we can lose ourselves when we lose our memories. As memory slackens, the scaffolding for self, intellectually, ethically, and socially, can sag and eventually collapse. My name, titles, photographs and old addresses — the stories I tell about myself — are reminders of my real and imagined past, my alleged gaffs and glories. It’s no wonder that taking stock of memories is such a bittersweet undertaking.

Thanks to memory, we can recite the periodic table, but we can also lay in bed for sleepless hours, mentally rehashing and revising old conversations and scenes: Why did I do and say that? Regret and recrimination can leak endlessly into the present through the sewer system of memory. How precious are those first few moments of awakening, before memory steps in to issue our marching orders, feeding us the script of who we’ve been, who we are and who we must be again today? And if we don’t force ourselves into line, others will usually assist, noting every change of habit, appearance, or sensibility of ours that does not fit with their own imperfectly remembered story of who we are. Memory becomes not just a personal tool for resourcing our own past, but one for delineating the future of others as well.

It’s no wonder that so many queer-identified folks flock to anonymous urban areas. The promise of existing in community without the oppressive power of others’ long memories can be irresistible. We know far too well that the same precious memories that bind us in love and kinship can also constrict and oppress. Even those who love us — maybe especially those who love us — can find it impossible to let us become in surprising, unscripted ways. How can anyone truly redefine themselves in the midst of people with relentlessly good memories?

There’s something to be said, then, for the softening loss of memory. We no longer obsess over this or that insult or slight. We feel less compelled to compare and judge every new experience. And we need no longer be governed by habitual fears that we have rewoven into our own script day after day, year after year. So, though year’s end is a time to step back and remember, may I also become more adept at forgetting, both for my own sake and for others. May I stand in graceful appreciation of the fact that each day and each moment, each of us dies. And when we are reborn into the next day or moment, whether we pick up our habitual story line or choose to embark on a new one is partly up to us.

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