As a society, we are taught to cultivate an irrational fear of forgetting.
Even the slightest decline in someone’s cognitive abilities is immediately identified as a sign of aging and, consequently, deteriorating health. As soon as we approach the end of our twenties, we start worrying about this inevitable loss of memory and uncontrollable slowdown.
We dread the idea of walking into a room and not being able to remember what we needed to look for, let alone the possibility of forgetting the names of our loved ones or personal parts of our own lives.
There is even a name for the fear of forgetting things and being forgotten: athazagoraphobia.
Moreover, some say wishing we could forget a particular negative experience is unhealthy and unproductive because remembering both the good and the bad can be beneficial for our development. Sad memories — which we tend to remember better than happy ones — are seen as life lessons that we should always keep in mind.
But there are intellectuals in history who had a different interpretation of forgetfulness and even praised it as a necessary path to contentment.
Friedrich Nietzsche, a German philosopher from the 19th century, had a rather unconventional approach to philosophy that drifted away from more classical ideas and spurred controversy.
One of his most interesting and peculiar arguments revolved around the idea that forgetfulness is important and cathartic — not only does it allow us to create space in our memory to store new and better knowledge, but it also prevents us from becoming paralyzed by the past.
Nietzsche believed it was hard to create a healthy relationship with history. People can compare their present selves with previous ages or experiences, which eventually causes paralysis. In this sense, forgetting is necessary in order to act because a nostalgic consciousness causes immobility.
One’s present can be spoiled if the person is unable to rationalize the past and move on.
“Without forgetting it is quite impossible to live at all,” the philosopher wrote in “On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life.” The weight of all our memories can become heavy enough to crush us.
Hearing such opinions nowadays is incredibly bizarre. Nonetheless, we should avoid the urge to reject anything that does not conform with our traditional ideas. Drastically different perspectives can help us challenge perhaps outdated concepts.
I strongly believe that all kinds of memories can be valid and important. Remembering past experiences — whether global or personal — is fundamental in learning from our mistakes and celebrating our achievements. Acknowledging the past also means accepting our humanity.
Yet in doing so, it is quite easy to focus too heavily on the past instead of orienting our mindset toward an optimistic future. If someone makes a mistake, their day might be wasted because of their fixation on it — a psychological concept known as negativity bias.
Forgetfulness could be a practical resource in similar situations.
Nietzsche is not advocating for ignorance nor the disregard of entire events. Instead, he encourages us to put those moments behind us so that, if recalled, they don’t cause nonconstructive pain. This applies especially to futile details that we decide to remember even though they constitute an unnecessary burden for us.
We react to our fear of forgetting by paying incredible attention to everything. The consequences of such behavior are far worse than allowing ourselves to lose a couple memories.
Not only can it negatively impact our emotional state, but it can also increase the likelihood of a decline in our cognitive capabilities.
It is scientifically proven that a persistent worry about the functioning of one’s brain can actually accelerate its imminent deterioration. We already know our minds tend to perform more poorly than usual when under pressure, and this is only an extension of this fact.
When Nietzsche wrote, “Blessed are the forgetful, for they get the better even of their blunders,” his aim was not to portray all forgetfulness as bliss, but rather to encourage a healthier relationship with our past and our memory.