My life philosophy now, “live in the moment,” is pretty much the only one that makes sense of a life typically only lasting 80 years and much shorter for the unlucky.
But I’ve always had this lingering dissonance with that philosophy: Memory.
What is the point of an experience if there is no memory of it later? If I had no memory of my life before this point, what would my life be? I wouldn’t be able to reminisce on my childhood family camping trips and dance recitals and BFF necklaces. I wouldn’t remember my wedding day, honeymoon, life as a missionary overseas, and the birth of my children. I wouldn’t remember what it felt like to be scolded to tears when I accidentally left my books in my locker at school or when my first baby first cried. I wouldn’t be able to see my daughter’s squinty eyes as she smiles, or my baby’s tongue sticking out the corner of her 4-month toothless grin. I wouldn’t remember walking on a glacier in barefeet, bounding through the leaves as a 6th grader with my new puppy, or speaking in tongues for the bondage of my in-laws to be released.
Obviously, the list goes on forever. The human experience, my human experience, consists of as-close-to-infinite as it comes of moments. But will all of those moments become memories? No. And even those that do, will those memories even be accurate? No.
Death scares most people. But for me, a loss of memory while I’m alive absolutely terrifies me. Because a loss of memory means a loss of my life. Living does not just mean having a heart beat. I won’t recover experiences in an afterlife. There won’t be a big movie screen playing in heaven for me to be publicly shamed about that time I stole my friend’s toy from her or praised for the hours I spent on my knees praying. If I lose a memory, in many ways it’s as if it never happened.
So this begs these two questions: What is experience if not memory? And what is memory as it is unreliable?
This brings up deep questions about consciousness, about self, about experience. If we really are just a collection of cells and chemical reactions, what does it mean to be “me”?
Silver and I had a long conversation tonight about this and it came down to this question I asked him:
“Would you rather have an experience and have your memory wiped of it entirely, or never have experienced it but have a memory implanted in your brain that it did?”
If we live only in the present, then of course, bring on the experience. But our present is also a collection of our past in the form of our memories. Yet, our memory fades and has been studied to be incredibly formative and unreliable. Check out this TED talk and this Rationally Speaking podcast to hear about memory from the experts. Basically, human memory is terribly inaccurate.
This is actually incredibly disheartening to me. I don’t even know what to do with it. I was telling Silver tonight that this is the reason why I sometimes obsessively take photos and/or videos of our life. I’m documenting it so I can reliably remember it later. Because if I don’t remember it, it’s gone. And even if I do, in a very real way — it’s still gone. And that terrifies me.
I don’t want to spend my life behind a camera lens or screen and miss the present. But every time I don’t, I’m robbing my future of my past. The same can be said of any art, actually. Is art any more than just a form of desperation, frantic attempts to capture and preserve moments of the human experience upon which future selves and persons to reflect?
I am gone in a maximum of 60 years. Will I spend that time enjoying experiences or making memories? And how is it that those two are both exactly the same yet mutually exclusive??