The basic law of life, is to forget

In which I explore how individuals form a collective memory.

How many of your memories do you still have active access to? Are you more like me, someone who feels like they don’t remember anything once people start to share stories? Or once they’re asked to recount something specific?

Or are you one of those people that seemingly remembers everything?

On a personal level, we as individuals tend to forget easily. We form our memories by connecting with people, by forming collectives and thereby creating an entwined individual and collective memory. “Communication is key” is not only a concept to swear by when you want to explain yourself and understand something, it is the key to forming memories. We forget what can be discarded and doesn’t add value. We keep the memories that give us a place within a group and help us understand our surroundings, and thus ourselves. Personal memory anchors us within a certain time frame and provides orientation.

“Every generation forms their own approach to the past”, writes Aleida Assmann, a German professor whose work has focused on Cultural and Communicative Memory. The connectivity between individual to social memory is not only what shapes us or our closest circle of others, it impacts how we approach the past and present in a historical and political sense.

It’s impossible to remember everything. But all kinds of media disburden us in that sense. They offer the space to store all kinds of past happenings that can later be accessed by the individual again. This collective (and collected) memory differs from the individual and social memory as it’s detached from biological carriers. Texts, videos, audios and objects stored away in archives and museums are only worth something because someone put them there and found meaning in them. A document that cannot be connected to anything is worthless and will, with time, be forgotten irrevocably.

Rehabilitating and dealing with past happenings to understand the present is what forms the groups and nations we live in. It shapes how we approach victories and failings and how willing we are to deal with these past traumas. Individual memory is the fragments that fill in the gaps of the collective memory. The collective memory, in turn, offers us an access point to rectify certain wrong beliefs and learn more about a time we haven’t lived in. It is this point between past and present that is opened up and through which we can actively form our existence and what we make of it.

Forgetting isn’t easy. It’s crucial, but it is our duty to keep track of past happenings, both positive and negative. It’s what builds and shapes our character. And only time reveals the memories that will count most in the end.


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