Why Don’t We Remember?
“But though they wrote it all by rote
They did not write it right.”
–W.H. Hudson, “Far Away and Long Ago: A History of My Early Life”
An old friend and former colleague just celebrated his 60th birthday. Like all birthdays ending in “zero” after number 20, (e.g. 30th, 40th, and 50th birthdays) 60 seems like a big number when you reach it. After all, everyone is afraid of getting old.
Someone wrote a birthday message to my friend on Facebook: “Now is the best part of your life.” When I was 25 or 35, I would have thought that was nonsense. Now, I heartily agree.
In Chinese culture, 60 is a very special number, representing the completion of 5 cycles of 12 years. There are many good things about being 60-plus which you don’t discover until you arrive there. You don’t have to believe me, and if you’re in your 20s, you probably won’t. But wait and see. (I’m not just referring to senior discounts, either.)
The only disappointment which I’d like to report, with regard to passing this milestone, is that there are still a lot of things I don’t understand. When I was a little kid, I had the wildly mistaken notion that grown-ups understand almost everything — especially gray-haired grandpas and grandmas.
Of course as we age, our bodies experience more health and maintenance issues, and memory abilities become challenged. At the same time, there are a wide variety of tools available nowadays to cope with these issues.
Think about the mountains of your data stored on your smartphone, your PC, the cloud, etc. And there are more new tools in the pipeline, including some promising new drugs being tested to treat Alzheimers, and all sorts of improved medical diagnostic and treatment technologies.
A long time ago I had a luncheon in Hong Kong with a senior American executive of a Fortune 500 company. He was many years older than me, and had become a good friend. He lost his wife after a long battle with cancer.
I was around 30 years old, before that stage in life when we start routinely losing friends and family to illness and old age. My older friend, looking on the bright side, said that at least now his late beloved wife was beyond the suffering associated with cancer. He also commented that of all the diseases, Alzheimers was the most terrifying, not cancer.
Due to my youthful naivete, this was new to me. His point was not to say that cancer is a disease to be taken lightly, but that Alzheimers was scarier for various reasons.
Later, as I learned more about what happens to those suffering from advanced Alzheimers, I understood what he meant. To be of sound physical health, yet unable to recognize or remember your loved ones, or even find your way back home, is indeed very scary — not only for the afflicted, but for their loved ones. With no effective treatment for the disease or its associated loss of memory available yet, it seems a hopeless dilemma.
It’s all too easy to take memory for granted until we start losing it.
In my experience, Chinese people are less likely to take memory for granted because their education system places such a huge emphasis on rote learning. Apart from the issues of educational systems or pedagogy, there is simply no way to learn thousands of Chinese characters other than by rote learning.
I think one benefit to me as a foreigner of studying the Chinese language is that it forces you to develop a disciplined memory. To some extent, memory can be enhanced through regular exercise. On the other hand, it’s one thing to memorize a poem, a list of Chinese vocabulary words, a series of PIN numbers, or other “things”.
It’s quite another to refresh our long-term memories of experiences, encounters, names, faces, places, smells, sights, and so on. How this aspect of human memory functions is more of a mystery.
Why is it that one sight, sound, or smell can sometimes trigger a flood of memories of some experience which we’d long since forgotten?
And why is it that so often, we remember things which we’d really rather forget, yet forget the things we really should remember?
Some memories seem attached to us like superglue; yet others seem to be bound only loosely, as if by a rough paste of flour and water, easily dissolved, dispersed, and disappeared.
We all develop coping techniques. One of mine is making lists of things I need to do. I check items off as they are complete, and eventually create a new list. It’s a habit that doesn’t appeal to everyone, but it works for me.
The easy part is including the “things” we must do.
In the long run, the more important part is finding ways to remember the actions we should take, no matter how busy or distracted we become.
Spending quality time with our loved ones and friends is always at the top of that list, yet so easily forgotten.