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amnesia as a virtue

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Harland & WolffAfter midnight in Belfast, with the hovering helicopters to the west ruling out sleep, for now. Yet another dispute over a marching route has led to yet more pointless rioting. East Belfast is also burning, according to reports, an area I walked through just this morning. I walked the Newtownards Road in disbelief, a mile of non-stop Loyalist grudgery, camera firmly tucked away. Huge murals hailing the “Red Hand Commando”. An open playground with a walled-off grave – real or symbolic, who knows – with exhortational reminders of claimed IRA murders.

Most offensive to my eyes: the Cross of St. Andrew flying, a flag I thought exclusively Scots. It doesn’t represent the Scots culture I remember. You know, the inventors and explorers with their eyes on the distant horizon, not the short-sighted bigots putting up walls, real or otherwise.

Never Forget, is the message. Really? Why not? Have you tried it? If I remembered every insult, every slight, every knock, I too would be stuck in the past, a past as frozen and intractable as Siberia in an everlasting December. Only the seriously memorable incidents reside in my long-term files. Isn’t life short enough?

That may sound like tautology, but it’s not. Every person has a fuzzy “memorability threshold”, above which incidents remain in the brain. There is a time dimension too; some life events are amenable for forgetfulness over time, some are not. I remember a painful ear infection I had when I was less than two years old, a car crash at five, and emigration at six. I can’t either of my old mobile phone numbers, and I’m having difficulty remembering my new one. In my Japanese language classes, I’m struggling to keep all the vocabulary in my head, and sensei is not helping when she throws new vocabulary and new grammar at us in one lump.

Most relevant, today, is the way I’ve tuned my absent-mindedness in the interests of sociability. I can sit here now and dredge up things a person has said or done to me, with some effort; but when that person is in front of me, it would not help to remember any of that, far less bring it back to the surface. Some people I know think I have a little of the “absent-minded professor” vibe, which is a small price to pay.

To put it another way: I don’t mind forgetting specific examples, as long as I remember the general principles behind them. Not so good for learning a language, but it works in dealing with people and all their foibles.

Written by brian t

September 11, 2005 at 1:12 am

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