Let’s play a game.
Think of the last time you interacted with someone face-to-face. Could be today, could be late last night. Now, what was the person wearing? What color was it? Did it have any patterns or words on it? Do you remember? Probably not. That’s fine, though. I don’t, either. But it goes to show how selective and weak our memory actually is. Most of the things we observe, we often forget the next moment, and that’s if we observe anything in the first place.
Memory’s something almost everyone regards as something crucial to intelligence. People with eidetic memory (photographic sensory memory) are seen as miraculous geniuses, and forgetfulness is seen as the exact opposite. Memory is, quite literally, our identity. They inform our opinions of who we individually are, they sway our decisions, and they give us identity distinct from the rest of the 7.2 billion human beings on earth with different memories of their experiences and lifetimes. Remembering the past is undoubtedly one of the most important things our minds do.
But memory’s effects work both ways.
“Memory”, in the typical sense, is retroactive. We remember things in the past. It’s the events of the past that shape us into who we are. But I think memory is also quite a bit more proactive than we give it credit for. Our ability to remember experiences shapes not only how we remember our past, but also how we look into the future. And as a consequence, it affects how we act to anticipate those future possibilities. Memory holds us to the past, but it also holds us to the future we “probably” will face, as the past dictates.
In my case, my memory identifies myself as who I am, based on my past – a blogger, a pianist, a teenager, and so on. But it also identifies who I can be in the future. My memory also reminds me that I can expect to graduate a four-year college, because that’s the path I’ve followed up to this point in my life. I’m also reminded that I probably won’t be looking for a career in professional musicianship or artistry, that I probably won’t be a twenty-something billionaire, and that I can probably expect a modest income in a modest career path, and live past fifty years of age. My experiences hold me to those conservative realistic future possibilities, and in that way, they hold me to be realistic about my vision and stay commited to these realistic goals. My future is limited by my past, and by my memory.
But what if I forgot everything? What if my memory, and along with it my sense of identity from experience, vanished? Memory, as I’ve said, is literally our identity. So escaping from the rigid frames of our memories quite literally gives us each a chance to be outside of our identity – be someone else. And I don’t know about you, but I find that thought experiment really interesting.
If I could let go of everything that holds me to my so-called “expected future” by forgetting who I was, what would I do? What would you do? If you could one day disregard all of your future expectations, your future possibilities, and just .. run away? What do you really want to do? Not what-do-you-want-to-do give your expected income, your tax bracket, your social class, your academic status, and your age, but if you could escape the future you’re held to, what would you want to do?
I had a dream about this a few weeks ago, where I randomly managed to pursuade myself that whatever happens in the future, pouring my savings into a first-class ticket to the Big Apple was a great idea in the middle of a school day. So I took off on my bike with some cash, a phone, a laptop, and a camera to the nearest airport. I bought a ticket – don’t ask me how – and off I went to New York City.
At this point, my remembrances of the dream gets a bit fuzzy. I don’t recall how I managed to navigate the mess that is NYC traffic to find myself in downtown Manhattan, but I did. I got a hotel room, and after a bit of resting, I started walking around, exploring and observing.
I surrounded myself with the best and the worst of the culture. I took photographs, played music, sat around reading books at random bookstores for hours, and took some more photos until it was dark. Then the next day, I did the same thing. Over and over and over again. I blogged about it, I posted the photos I took, I shared the music I wrote, and all in all, it was a blast. Except for the part where this is all happening inside a dream, it was great. I didn’t have a single worry about the future. No concerns of graduation or grades, no idea of how I’ll forge a successful career path or make sustainable income. I just found what I loved to do, and did it 24/7.
There aren’t too many practical benefits to this kind of daydreaming, besides some mild entertainment. But I think it does one powerful thing. It shows us what we really want to do. Not “what do you want to be?” followed by a thousand asterisks and limitations on finances, social classes, and education, but a “what do you want to do?” with no terms or conditions. And I think that’s one of the most important things to realize to best navigate our futures.
Realistic expectation and planning have their rightful places. They’re useful, rational tools in life. But life isn’t just a live inside this box you’re born into, don’t try to bash into the walls too much, and try to be safe and sound situation. That’s a very boring view of life. And I think this thought experiment of sorts, although far from “realistic”, gives us a direction to work for. It tells us where we’re happiest, and although it might not get us there, it gives us a star by which we can find our way to that dream, and I think that’s a powerful thing to have and keep in mind every single moment of every single day.
Our working towards the future is a nonstop battle against time and memory. We’ve all got a million things to do, a dozen deadlines, and far too many distractions that it’s sometimes difficult to separate out the noise from what you really want to be doing. But once in a while, I think it’s more important than anything else to forget. Forget the past, and forget the future so strongly that you can see past where you are now, to where you want to be, and what you want to be doing. Then run away, run towards that place you want to be. And if we pick our finish lines right, we might not get there in time, but I think it’ll be a good time getting there.
If you enjoyed this piece, you might also enjoy my next post, Holding gaze.
Have a comment or response? You can email me.