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The Art Of Forgetting

THE ART OF FORGETTING
Though we decry the loss of memory, we have to forget some of our past in order to function as God intends; but what if our environment stops us from forgetting?

It is an easy assumption to make that, among the trillions of pages of online data which will be posted in our lifetime, stuff about us personally will go unnoticed. The comprehensive reach and ease of access which the search engines afford enable others to find out much about us. The corporate world is quietly and unobtrusively mining copious amounts of data about our habits which can easily be made available to others. Meanwhile, we store large amounts of information which it takes a stranger only seconds to find and minutes to sift. Until recently, most of what we said about ourselves was lost in the breath it took us to say it and the photographs we gathered to describe our lives were available only to those we passed the album to. As our culture moves inexorably to express itself digitally, most of our memories are being made available to anyone who wants to access them. Not all of these people have our interests at heart.

The development of digital social media has been described as the biggest social experiment in history. Most young people have only known this facility and lack the foresight and, in some cases, maturity to understand that the photos they post of themselves or others drunken or semi-naked are going to find their way into the print media as soon as they become public figures. Most people may take solace from the hope that they will not become famous, but the digital footprints we are leaving behind do not evaporate like steps in the snow and will pose many problems for the less well-known in the future too.

Isn’t it fair to be able to forget some things in life?

Though we decry loss of memory, the ability to forget certain details of our lives is essential if we are to function as well-adjusted human beings. One or two people in this world are cursed with almost perfect memory and however much we may envy them, their reality is different. Such recall means they live much more in the past than ordinary people. They are also less able to make sound choices and judgments about the present because they are hampered by too much recollection. The art of decision-making lies in an unconscious process of filtering by the mind.

Relationships are also hindered by impeccable recall. The mean-spirited and disingenuous saying: ‘I’ll forgive but I won’t forget’ is tantamount to not forgiving. We sense this when we’re told it and the evidence supports us. Forgetting an offence is a crucial component of forgiving it. Well-intentioned people spend a lot of time wondering if they are sufficiently forgiving without quite nailing the answer. One sure way of providing one is to reflect on how much we nourish the grievances of the past. Somehow, the person who forgives finds a way of not remembering, or, if the memory is still there, of not feeling the sting of it. By such ways we are able to re-build relationships as God intends us. He has set us the pattern: ‘I will not remember your sins’ (Isaiah 43:25); ‘for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more (Jeremiah 31: 34). The grace of God is expressed in a bad memory.

The digital world we are creating is one of perfect and instantaneous recall, where we aggregate to ourselves a power which God has, so to speak, denied himself. It does not have to be this way, and there are some who are working out ways of digital forgetting (see ‘Delete’ by Viktor Mayer-Schonberger, Princeton University Press, 2009). Whether they will be adopted remains to be seen. One anxiety of the digital revolution is that we are so breathlessly in thrall to what we have made for ourselves that we are deprived of the critical imagination and foresight to build an enduring moral framework for it. Digital social networking is an experiment we have to get right for the generations who never knew a time before they couldn’t forget.


 

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