The Lost Art of Forgetfulness

First things first: of course I forgot about writing this article after I had decided to do so. More than once.

For the sake of mercy, I can’t even remember when the idea for it first came to me. I think it was in the shower? Wherever it occurred, I do remember trying to ensure that I clung onto the thought until I had a chance to note it down. I failed. I’m not entirely sure when that was, but at some other point which now also escapes me, I remembered.

As ever, this process of hazy recollection – or not remembering a single thing – is utterly maddening. Short of hiring a robot butler to bark every waking thought I have at, there seems little that can be done to help.

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Having a lousy memory isn’t just a case of forgetting the odd thing or two. The everyday constancy means that it seeps into your very essence. In some important ways it can come to define you.

In truth I hadn’t even realised how much of an effect it has until I began writing this article: in the subsequent period coming to recognise some of the unconscious coping mechanisms I have for mitigating my utterly borked brain. I’ll get to those in a bit – hopefully – but first a tinsy bit of background.

I’ve been forgetful as long as I can remember, which I guess might be ironic, but I currently can’t recall the definition (and there’s something far too delicious about that to bother Googling it). In school I lost every single item I possibly could. On holiday I left my bumbag – oh, those were the days – in the toilet of a shopping mall. Once I realised I quickly returned only to find my wallet had been taken, but the bumbag had been left behind.

Not entirely surprising, in retrospect.

Just to rub it in, I can’t actually remember all the things I have lost over the years – many of them repeatedly – but I know it’s a lot. The malady also affects me socially and professionally. For instance, I am terrible with names. Despite asking people about themselves and displaying genuine interest, by the next time I meet them I most likely have no clue what their answers were – or even what my questions may have been. (I am however aware I should remember something, which is always good for inspiring a decent dollop of anxiety.)

Sometimes I’ll rant on about a fantastic/interesting/atrocious film to someone I’m close to, and they’ll politely remind me we saw it together. I pray nobody asks me to recall who got what in terms of presents the previous Christmas, never mind any further into the past. I have technically lost my GoPro camera, only realising a few months ago it was missing, and having a very feint recollection that I gave it to someone to use for something or other – I have no idea what month or even year this friendly gesture may have taken place. (If that person was you, then hope it’s being put to the best possible use!)

If I lent you money more than six months and haven’t politely brought up the subject, you can keep it – though I will be beyond delighted at any unexpected windfall, should that act as an incentive. Also, sharing this anecdote may make me unemployable, but at one major media organisation I – and another colleague to be fair – travelled to the opposite side of the city, only realising after we got out of the taxi that we were without several thousand pounds worth of camera equipment that the company had just purchased.  It had all been left on a public street back at the original location.

Whoops. Somehow it was all still there, untouched.

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Now, where was I going with this? Ah, yes, those coping mechanisms! Here are some of the favourites – let’s face it, it’s unlikely to be comprehensive – in some sort of rough order of when they may have developed:

Trying really hard not to forget

Because that is exactly what you do as a child when trying not to anger those around you. And sometimes the brute force of willing yourself over and over to not let this one thing slip from your mind does work! There is a success rate! But it’s not reliable, certainly not the fail-safe guarantee that some people seem to think. Therefore we move onto…

The poker face

Oh my, the amount of times that people have told me they don’t really know what I’m thinking, though they know I’m thinking something. My lack of instantaneous expressiveness is something that deeply pains me sometimes: the noticeably delayed reaction can feel as though I’m putting on a mask, that there’s a level of detectable insincerity even though it does reflect my emotions.

However, the advantage is enormous: it gives me breathing space. As the person opposite keeps talking, not only can I try and remember what they’re referring to, but I can develop the strategy for what to do if I draw a blank. (As this has developed into the default, it does therefore mean that I’ll look just as gormless even when I do remember whatever is being discussed.)

This is perhaps the most vital techniques out of all those listed here, one that has got me out of all sorts of sticky situations, and only at the expense of perhaps appearing to others like an emotionless automaton! The costs are that:

  • I rarely laugh spontaneously.
  • You are extremely unlikely to find me “living in the moment”. Instead I’ll be overthinking about what else I might soon need to remember – those unknown unknowns.
  • It probably seems to others that I’m aloof, whereas I’m actually luxuriously bathing in anxiety and panic. Not that you’d guess for a second, of course, which is a weird advantage of the disadvantage of the advantage.

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Short-term memory

Hello exams, and the hallowed age of flash cards. My word, I used those brilliantly in school, if I do say so myself. And also in university: since there was more to remember I’d use those more as cues to set off chains of thought which would hopefully lead in the right direction. And since I was studying philosophy, just about any direction could be valid if expressed with appropriate exuberance.

Downside: cramming most of it into the short-term memory meant very little of that studied knowledge carried over. I can remember almost nothing of a degree that ate up a large chunk of four years of my life, and which I in many ways loved. I’m constantly reminded of this when I write, as I would love to reference philosophers and the theories and concepts of significance that I feel I ought to be building upon. Instead I have to figure things out pretty much from scratch – aside from the odd found memory or two – which makes things exciting but distinctly unreliable.

Not asking people about themselves

You probably told me what you did the first time we met. You might have mentioned your favourite hobby. Whether you’re sporty. What TV show you love. Whether you prefer to read books. Where you’re from. Lots more details about your job or studies. Places you’ve been recently. Where you’re going to soon.

I found it all fascinating. Coincidentally (I mean that literally), I’ve forgotten every single detail.

Of course I can’t tell you that, because of the very real risk of causing offence, so I’ll avoid those subjects altogether – vaguely alluding to general stuff in the hope that you’ll respond positively and remind me of something that jams open the floodgate at least a millimetre or two. For this reason I’ll also speak about myself more, thus giving the impression I’m a narcissist full of his own self-importance. (That’s before I mention all the articles I write in the first-person.) Though I hate the idea of that, I vastly prefer it to the prospect of revealing how little about you I can recall.

Hoarding

Gig tickets. Programmes. Race numbers. Fliers. Every single image on my camera, including those that were taken accidentally while the lens was pointing at the floor. It’s all kept. In my defence all this sort of gubbins doesn’t take up much room, and it is a source of great delight as well as a helpful reminder. At a Scottish music festival I looked forward to seeing Placebo for the first time. Afterwards I realised I’d seen them at least twice before. (Afterwards I realised I shouldn’t have looked forward to seeing them at all, but that’s another matter.)

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Humour

This is important since I’m always at risk of getting found out, for instance at work when introducing myself to somebody I’ve already talked to before. The humour is almost always rubbish: it’s a transparent diversion mechanism, and I’m acutely aware that the other person knows what I’m up to. Whether it’s not remembering a gig we went to or a relative of theirs who punched me in the face, I can only hope they’ll make things easy and allow us to move swiftly on to the next topic. MOVE ON.

Technology

One of the primary reasons I love technology, and get a bit shirty with those who are disparaging of it, is that it has saved my career. This is especially so in the past few years, where things such as Notes, Trello, Wunderlist, etc, have provided me with an artificial recall ability which I have never had anything close to before. Sure, I look a bit silly constantly typing away during meetings, but things are no longer so likely slip by me. (Physical notepads are okay until you suddenly have several because you kept misplacing them, and are no longer sure what contains what, and which you need to refer to.)

I can’t say enough good things about how technology has helped, especially in the “cloud” era where everything I input is stored across devices, making it readily accessible. The only downside might be that I can rave about this stuff a bit too much, but it really has been a life changer, however silly it may seem that note-taking software – not exactly the most exciting of tools – could have such a seismic effect.

 


Those are the ones I can list, for the moment. No doubt more may come back to me, and I’ll edit this and add them. (Actually, editing things post-publishing is actually another time-honoured technique, especially when it comes to the written word. I won’t include that above though, since it is something tightly woven into my Herculean level of indecisiveness.)

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It’s easy to pass this off by trying to make jokes, but the main downside of being forgetful is the guilt and shame of dealing with the anger that can occasionally be directed at you – or worse still the hurt that you can sense but which goes unsaid. It feels that, more than many other character traits, problems caused by forgetfulness are attributed as a direct failing: you could have remembered better.

“If it was important to you, you would have remembered,” is the most common of complaints. It’s an easy one to understand, which makes it especially hard to refute. And sometimes it is justifiable: at moments where my mind was in some other distant place, having a rollicking time just at the moment it really ought to be paying attention.

But often it’s not. I remember on multiple occasions repeating to myself over and over what a person does, or what their name is, or the directions to where I need to go, or something else PRETTY DAMNED IMPORTANT, and there’s absolutely no benefit to this information slipping from my mind. Yet it does. And I feel terrible about it. But that does no good. So I stay silent. That does no good either.

And so it goes on. Meaning that, for the moment, that is about that. I guess you may be asking yourself: “Was he going to tie this up with a grand overarching point? By Christ, I hope so.” Well, this is a fitting placeholder until I have any sort of answer to that. Perhaps I’ll forget to update this penultimate paragraph before publishing, and save myself the bother of umming and aahing over it. I guess it’s not all bad. Actually, there are plenty of terrible films I can’t remember even watching, that’s another plus. (Unless I accidentally watch them again, as has happened in the past.)

Oh, wait a second, that’s it: I was going to mention the biggest coping mechanism which I also consider a big positive. By not being able to remember much of the past, it means that I’ve had to focus on the future, and concentrate on moving forward instead of looking back. Isn’t that nice? It certainly feels so: at least until I have more behind me than I do in front. Now there’s a thought best left forgotten.