What if you forgot the worst day of your life?
What if you forgot a moment of grace? Of generosity? Would it change your character? Would it cause you to act differently, to live life more freely? Would it cause you to make the same mistakes all over again, without the benefit of experience or knowledge?
Is our character an accumulation of everything we learned? If that’s the case, is it possible to literally forget who we are—to change the fundamental nature of ourselves as we get older? Maybe that’s what growing older is—forgetting certain lessons and re-learning other ones.
Philosophically, you could consider yourself a collection of memories tied together with a narrative. “I forget, or I remember, therefore I am.” Let’s say you lived an entire lifetime that shaped your outlook on the world around you, then forgot it all at once. Those memories and those lessons would, on some level, belong to someone else. You would lose an important part of yourself (or maybe regain another important part).
In a Norse proverb, Odin (an old man) says to himself that if he had to choose between losing his mind and losing his memories, he’d keep his memories. Maybe the ancient peoples understand what we know now: that losing our past (or misshaping it) is a grievous loss. Part of what makes Alzheimers so terrifying is the prospect of losing our own narrative—losing the cornerstone memories that define who we are to ourselves.
Culturally, is it any different? Is that why our collective memory is vital to our growth as a nation, as peoples? I would argue that, on some level, history serves the same purpose as personal memory. It’s why every Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, you have two basic categories of posts: people celebrating the most benign, “feel-good” quotes they could find on Google, and people quoting the unabashedly Leftist, nuanced views that made MLK so deeply unpopular before he died.
We’re both remembering MLK—but what parts we remember changes the game.
“I love you, & you’re a liar”
One of the defining moments of my life was when I found out I was the “toxic friend.”
It was 2013, and I had been spiraling. My life felt out of control, so in response, I became controlling of the people around me. I started lying because it was easier than looking like a failure, and everyone around me paid for it—especially my girlfriend at the time, who was the closest person to me then. I was hurting the people who loved me, who had been doing their best to support me.
What’s crazy is at the time, this was not the story I told myself. The narrative of my life (unsurprisingly) had me as the hero. I was a survivor, a victim of my circumstances. I was hiding (read: lying all the friggin’ time) because that’s what I needed to do to ‘get by.’ Never mind that my friends reached out to me or were always available; never mind that my dishonesty and two-faced living was taking advantage of their trust in me.
One day, I realized I was caught in a crisis I couldn’t find my way out of. I called my best friend to come pick me up so we could talk. What I was expecting was a pep talk. What he gave me was far more painful…and far more necessary.
He laid it all out on the table—how my behavior looked to everyone around me, how it was affecting the people who loved me, and how I was burning bridges and was so self-centered I didn’t even notice the wreckage I left behind me.
I’ll never forget what he said to me, point-blank: “I love you, and you’re a liar.” That “and” is important. These are not two statements where there’s an implied condition. This isn’t a cause-effect statement where my being a liar threatens his care for me. He said “and,” and it freed me to face myself.
In his generosity, my friend risked our friendship in order to tell me the truth. I am thankful to God for his honesty, and thankful even more that I listened to him.
My relationship with my girlfriend was already over by that point, but I knew I had to apologize to as many people as I could. I’ve been living with the lessons of that season ever since, remaining constantly aware that the story I tell myself about myself is not necessarily true—and the longer I live my life according to the wrong story, the more damage I do.
Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said something in an interview that struck me:
Until America tells the truth about itself, we’re not going to heal.
There’s a popular American narrative that we’ve been telling ourselves for a couple generations. It’s dominated U.S. textbooks and education for centuries, and it can (imperfectly) be summed up this way: “America started as fundamentally a good idea carried out by strong, principled men, with some racist periods in its early history that we’ve since grown out of.” If I’m being generous, even the most centrist view of American history is that we “made mistakes” as a nation, but have ‘moved past’ those mistakes.
Why do we think we ‘moved past’ our racist history?
Let’s consider that American slavery started in the 17th century and continued into the 19th century. That’s more than two hundred years. Then, for nearly a century after that, Black people in North America were subjected to unjust laws and law enforcement that ensured economic and social inequality.1 Then in the 1960s, we made some headway. Some. And that headway was by no means conclusive.
But for some reason, 15 or so years later, the media (and so the nation) decided that it had done its work. Racism was ‘finished,’ and we could all enjoy the post-racial wealth of the 1980s.
“Are we looking at the same country?”
There’s a childhood friend of mine who became a diehard conservative. He’s opposed to the Trump administration, but he’s pretty far-right on nearly any issue we’ve discussed together. One of the things we discussed was solutions to systemic racism. We seemed to be talking past each other over and over until I realized something. I asked him, “Hold up—do you actually think racism is still a problem? That a.) it exists, and b.) demands a solution?”
And his answer was, to paraphrase, “No, racism doesn’t exist anymore—or at least it’s not bad enough to legislate a solution.”
That’s an insane position to me—not because it isn’t possible, but because there’s no reason to believe that hundreds of years of socio-political structures (and their echoes) just…disappeared. If you had Stage IV cancer, and one day, someone told you your tumors were gone, wouldn’t you want confirmation? Wouldn’t you need to be sure? A smart patient wouldn’t just accept that a fatal disease just up and disappeared overnight.
But plenty of us think that centuries of inequality and oppression stopped, y’know, “just ‘cause.” We’re willing to believe that centuries of abuse and hatred and inequality and economic disparity and housing discrimination and wealth theft were cured by a few years of social progress.
Is it possible we tell ourselves that story, not because it’s true, but because it makes our present more bearable? Because it makes our dismissal of the calls for ‘justice’ easier? Because the alternative is facing what we are, and living our national destiny in the light of that knowledge?
Who will be the friend that tells us, “I love you, and you’re a liar”?
- To name just one example, housing discrimination against Black people was basically the norm, even after the Supreme Court ruled that housing discrimination was unconstitutional. Black WWII veterans were unable to secure mortgage loans under the GI Bill as a matter of practice, falling behind in wealth growth and equity by an entire generation. ↩