“We forget things we try to remember. We remember things we’d rather forget. The most frightening thing about memory is that it leaves no choice. It has mastered an incomprehensible art of forgetting. It erases, it smudges, it fills in blank spaces with details that don’t exist. But however we remember it—or choose to remember it—the past is the foundation that holds our lives in place. Without its support, we’d have nothing for guidance.” –
This morning I was thinking about how easy it is to get so caught up with the now, with the struggles and pressures and distractions of now, that we lose all perspective. We forget how it feels and what it means to be any other way.
When we have a cold, we forget what it feels like to be well, and when we’re well, we forget what it feels like to be dragged down by a cold, congested and miserable with a raw nose and sore throat, sucking cough drops and chugging DayQuil. When we’re exhausted, we forget what it feels like to have energy, and when we’re energized we don’t particularly think about what it feels like to be dropping and sick with exhaustion. When we’re not angry, we don’t think about being angry, and when we’re not lonely, we don’t think about being lonely, and when we’re not grieving, we don’t think about grieving. And when we’re sad and discouraged, we don’t spend much time remembering how it feels in mind or body to be thrilled and uplifted. We just feel sad.
In some ways, this amnesia is blissfully beneficial and helps us move through moments as they arise. It means we aren’t caught up in loops and emotions of the past—we felt them, they happened, now we can move on to what we’re feeling now. But in other ways, it doesn’t serve us to forget. In other ways, forgetting means we tell a different story and lose the perspective that remembering can give us.
To me, this is the same as the difference between forgiving and forgetting. We can forgive other people as the need and desire and opportunity to forgive arises. But that doesn’t mean we forget what the person did that required forgiveness. It doesn’t mean we should dismiss how what they did affected us. By the same token, it often benefits us just as much to remember and honor how we felt at a given moment, even if we don’t continue to live in that emotion any longer.
I often think in passing of how miserable and trapped and desperate I felt with my last partner—and also how gorgeously light and free and joyful I felt when that toxic relationship ended. I like to remember this when something inspires it; I like to remind myself of both the horror and the glory, because I know what I lived through and why it matters so much to make different choices now and in the future. I don’t relive it, I don’t re-feel the emotions, but I reach a calm, exultant, and grateful plane where I stand firm in what I survived, and the new reality that misery ultimately produced.
Within my new partnership, I sometimes reflect on the different things I felt as a single person. The sense of complete freedom and independence, balanced by a sense of loneliness and yearning. Now I no longer feel the loneliness or yearning as my partner is my life companion and constant friend, nor do I feel the same freedom or independence as I’ve tied my life to his. In both cases, I had and have a clear understanding of the choices that led me to this place, and I sit with that until I begin to experience deep, centering gratitude for what the moment offers me, knowing that it’s rich in lessons and opportunities for growth. Without a partner, I was able to learn to fully partner myself—and I continue to do so even with a partner. With a partner, I continue to learn to assert myself and prioritize my needs and boundaries. Neither is better, both experiences offer me much to learn from, especially when balanced with the other.
It’s helpful to remember that the loneliest I’ve ever been, I was in a monogamous relationship. First with my ex-husband, during his drug addiction (codependency is incredibly lonely and isolating) and after our physical separation. Then with my ex-boyfriend, a toxic and abusive narcissist, who was always physically surrounding and stifling me, but never emotionally present or accessible. After that relationship ended, I spent a lot of time taking stock of where I was and where I’d been. I remembered every emotion I’d felt in both relationships. The rage I felt at my husband when he duped and abandoned me. The feelings of utter helplessness and confusion when my boyfriend dismissed, betrayed and manipulated me. The anger and remorse I felt at myself for allowing all of it to happen.
Without those memories, without the hours I spent recording how I felt in my journal and rereading it and pulling it apart, I couldn’t have found my way to centered alignment. Balance would have been impossible, not merely challenging, without a deep understanding of my own passage and growth.
The morning after I met my new partner, I woke up hung over and full of shame for what I might have said the night before. I was only mildly drunk, but buzzed enough to feel the pain of both my social anxiety and the alcohol. After I struggled with feeling miserable for a while, I stumbled into the bathroom and, while there, suddenly reminded myself that two years before, on that same day, I’d been with my ex-boyfriend, and been utterly anxious and unhappy and exhausted with the strain of that relationship. I remembered every holiday with him (it was MLK Day), and I felt my spirit lifting immediately in response to the memories. I didn’t have to feel everything again to remember how awful it felt, nor to understand how far I’d come. Though nothing had changed—I was still nauseous and mildly embarrassed at something I’d said the night before (which my partner didn’t even remember), I felt completely different about everything. I could step into my day with a light, positive perspective.
I remember enjoyable times as well, of course, both when I’ve been in relationships and single. Those times and the emotions they inspired also bring me greater understanding. I don’t think of them when I’m unhappy to remind me of how happy I could be. But I do think of them, and they do remind me of how glad and satisfied I’m capable of being, even in difficult or inauthentic circumstances. Just as I don’t re-feel the sadness or anger or loneliness, I don’t re-feel the gladness or joy, but I think of what caused that emotion, and I know that the sources of joy, gratitude, laughter, love, excitement, anticipation, fellowship, compassion, pride, fulfillment and peace are all just as available to me now as they were in the past, if not more so.
This is the benefit of remembering, with clarity and intention. We don’t glorify the past or the present, but we understand that we have the power to make choices in our circumstances, whatever they are, to tap into what fills us and lights us up, and reject what brings us down and makes us miserable. We know that the lonely times don’t equal loneliness forever, and the successes don’t keep us on a high forever. We know that feeling intense grief, or intense love, or intense anxiety, or loneliness or fear or excitement, is only a place to start, with everything possible beyond what those experiences offer us.
We don’t have a cold forever. Now and then when we’re feeling great and probably not even noticing how healthy we are, it might benefit us to remember how awful it is to be sick, feel grateful that we’re not, and take some extra Vitamin C.