Assassins, Forgetting and Other Trips Down Memory Lane

I came across an interesting bit of hand-wringing over a threat to our personal identity.  Ironically, the risk comes from Facebook and the other social media that we use to share bits of ourselves with the world.   Kevin Slavin writing on Edge (which is a wonderful place to hang out) laid down the argument that because we have put so many events from our lives out on the web, we will lose the ability to forget.

Slavin writes “The sharp upswing in all of this record-keeping – both active and passive – [is] redefining one of the core elements of what it means to be human, namely to remember. We are moving towards a culture that has outsourced this essential quality of existence to machines.”

If we can’t forget the past, it will harass us and maybe even bury us; at least, that’s Slavin’s concern.

As threats go, this one is slightly overwrought but it does get you thinking about the connection between memory and identity and how one loops back on the other.

If you couldn’t remember your past, would you be the same person?

We put a lot of stock in the idea that memory is identity.  Amnesia is strong fodder for any number of movies, and the murkier the past, the better.  Jason Bourne in “The Bourne Identity” seems like a decent enough bloke except when he reveals a certain knack for killing a man silently ten different ways.

But put aside the pretext of an action film and the basic story line is a main character driven to uncover his or her roots.  It seems like a reasonable motivation.  We don’t argue that knowing where we came from is essential to knowing who we are.  The absence of memory leaves us bobbing in the ocean of the present but memories of people and events aren’t the only building blocks of identity.

Modified from Web Wallpapers

Jason Bourne’s story isn’t a bad way to uncover one of the wrinkles that complicates the connection between memory and identity.  At one point he asks “Why am I able to run a mile and my heart rate barely goes up?”  This is a nice nuance because Bourne is naming a skill he has that has survived longer than his memory.

He can now say, “I am a person who has wicked good endurance” and that’s the beginning of identity without recollecting past events.  What we can do might be part of identity too.

But wait, there’s more.

If people weren’t trying to kill Jason, he probably would be a lot more zen about his amnesia.  Sure, this is a plot device but at the abstract level, Jason is exploring his relationship with others.  The desire to kill is not a healthy relationship but it is a relationship nevertheless and one that I would want to understand.

Viewed this way, Jason’s quest to uncover his past is an effort to learn how he is connected to other people.  Our identity is not ours alone; it is ours within a network of families, friends and colleagues.  How they view us and want to treat us can shape our identity too.

So now, what do you make of the connection between your memories and your identity?

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6 thoughts on “Assassins, Forgetting and Other Trips Down Memory Lane

  1. Neat post, as always.
    I’ve always figured memories serve us as we construct an identity – we consciously or unconsciously decide which memories fit how we see ourselves and that’s where the identity comes from. With access to all of our experiences over time, we’ll probably still curate which memories “belong” and which don’t. To wit: Facebook’s Timeline feature lets you “hide” certain events or conversations. They don’t get deleted, they just don’t show on the public repository of your online identity.

    • Interesting take, Brady, especially how technology gets formed to follow how the mind forms itself. Or not, in other cases. Thank you! ~ Margaret

  2. “If you couldn’t remember your past, would you be the same person?” I’ve had recent experience with this very topic. In the last year of my grandmother’s life, at 90 years old, she lost her memory of everything from her life, especially all her family members – including the daughters who visited her daily in the nursing home to care for her needs. To Nana, these daughters, and all the rest of us, simply became strangers doing a good turn by visiting her. But interestingly, her personality and behavior didn’t change one bit. She was still the same social creature who needed to be around other people, and she was just as happy to visit with these “strangers” as she ever was to visit with us when she knew we were her closest family members. She also retained her sassiness and bawdy wit with the nurses; her tastes and her self-governed daily routine remained the same. It was all very remarkable – she really was the same person she had always been before her memory loss, it didn’t appear to have affected her overall happiness at all. It was we family members who were altered, and who suffered from her memory loss. So another question to ask could be “if you couldn’t remember your past, would the ones closest to you remain the same people?”

  3. Selective amnesia is what I’m aiming for. Remembering where I live, what car I drive, who I’m married to and where I work. so much of the past no longer serves me, it only adds to my suffering. its hard to just “put it down”.

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