Monday, June 24, 2024


I've written two helpful postings about memory, as part of my series on self-healing (one on adding more capacity, and one on retrieving lost memories.. Now it's time to work on forgetting!

It's famously impossible to will yourself to forget. The classic illustration is to challenge someone to not think of a pink elephant. One inevitably conjures a mental pink elephant. Willful forgetting involves remembering, so we need to approach forgetting indirectly.

Imagine this. You have a busy day. Lots of challenging tasks. But, for some reason, it's relentlessly on your mind that you need to BUY MILK. Perhaps the milk's not even so important. But the daemons in your mind - the alarms and reminders and alerts and vigils - are peppering you with MILK MILK MILK.

The easy route is to delegate someone to go buy some. Once that person leaves the room, the daemon will be silenced. Relief! In fact, it's so effective that when they return with milk...well, I'll let you visualize it. How will you react?

You'll be surprised. Oh! The milk! Right! Thanks! You'll have forgotten all about it. Because delegated tasks are so thoroughly wiped that it takes effort to mentally rekindle them. So if some certain mental thingie won't stop popping up, try delegating it.

To whom? It doesn't matter! It's about the mere act of delegation. You don't need an actual person doing actual things. Just the momentary experience of delegation, which ensures a clean, forgetting.

Delegate it to GOD (if you're into that) to worry about. Or to your dead ancestors. Or to your dog or cat or fish. Or buy yourself a toy orangutan. No transfer ceremony is required. No words must be spoken or actions taken. Just brusquely mentally assign the orangutan, and be satisfied that your empty annoyance is being appropriately handled.

Here are some examples of the sorts of things best forgotten in a given moment.

Be careful what you feed into the process. Nothing that needs to be front-of-mind. Not feelings of guilt, shame or anxiety, either, if such feelings require processing in the present moment. Anything needful should be handled, or scheduled, or added to your to-do list. This isn't a trick to escape responsibility, it's a refuge from needless self-torture and distraction. If there's no benefit to a certain thought or issue careening around inside your head in a given moment, it's time to delegate.
I once suggested a variation for insomniacs. Know that your pillow gently sucks thoughts out of your head, so simply stop resisting this natural process. Release it all into your pillow. In fact, you can even let your entire self be sucked into the pillow.
Understand the need for a stable delegatee. Loosely propositional notions tend to dissolve. We don't trust them. So we need an established go-to, mental or physical. Even some random toy (me, I go with a crocodile). But there's one pitfall: the fear of feeling ridiculous.

"Grown-ups," one might understandably declare, "don't resort to whimsical appeals to toy orangutans. I'm not some pathetic weakling. I don't turn to needy childish contrivances. I soberly suck it up!"

Fair enough! But think, for a moment, about how level-headed and realistic you truly are. Here's a line I used to re-use a lot in the Slog's early days:
Human beings spend their lives in conflict with imaginary people: mentally rearguing old arguments, worrying about faceless attackers and detractors, reliving bygone humiliations, and generally using our imaginations to make our lives a living hell.

That's considered "normal", but using the same faculty in positive ways to help us cope seems, for some bizarre reason, childish and loopy.

If you're so naive about the human condition to ask me whether this makes you forget something forever, I'll remind you that humans don't do anything "forever". You're not a Disney movie princess. "Permanent" is not a condition experienced by real people outside their cinematic self-imaginings. We're not heroic protagonists, we're raindrops slowly working down windows.

And, yup, it's reframing. Reframing is always the answer. We forget how available it is to us in every single moment.

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