The Problem with Forgetting
May 18, 2011
While in Southeast Asia, I read among a few other books “The Philosophy of Mad Men.” I’d recommend this book to anyone who loves philosophy (most smart people) and who enjoy Mad Men (includes people who have seen Mad Men that have a pulse). While the entire book stood out to me, one chapter in particular seemed very interesting. It was a chapter that talked about the concept of forgetting and remembering the past. This is a very central theme of the show, displayed most prominently among 3 cast members. Without going into details of the show, we have Pete, a character who can’t forget the past and constantly plays the victim and complains when it repeats itself. Don, a character who tries to forget the past but finds that it often catches up with him. Peggy a character who displays a supernatural ability to forget her past. What struck me about this is the strongest characters (at least as I perceive them) in the show are Don and Peggy who consistently forget their mistakes and just moving forward (“This never happened. It will shock you how much it never happened.” Season 2 Episode 5). There seems to be a major hole in this philosophy though. Specifically, if you forget something completely, you are bound to lose the lesson you could have derived from it (“I guess when you try to forget something, you have to forget everything.” Same episode).
Over the next few months and even since I’ve been home, I discussed with several people about forgetting. Was it a sign of strength to drop the past and forget something ever happened? Or is it unrealistic to live like this because our past mistakes will always catch us if we don’t learn from them? Generally everyone gave the same answer, stating that you need to remember the lesson, but not live in fear of the repeated result. That sounds great, except that it really doesn’t answer the question in any specific way. I would continue to ask where the line was, trying to force them to draw a line in the sand. I’d question “assume you get in a car accident because someone else hits you. What do you take from the experience?” The easy answer would be to pay more attention while driving, but that seems just as unspecific. What are the circumstances you got hit under? Was it on a left turn? Is the solution not to turn left anymore? Is the lesson to be constantly vigilant while driving? That sounds a lot like paranoia to me. Is the solution a far extreme to never get in a car again? Or just take nothing from the experience and keep driving the way you have. Eventually, they would wave me off and just respond “It depends on the situation, I guess.” This was of course completely unsatisfying as an answer.
The answer finally sprang up at me during a Introductory session for Landmark Education. The subject of forgetting came up in terms of how it affects our future, so I decided to question our presenter. The answer came in the general sense again, to only take the lessons forward that helps you but not the part that creates fear. Again, how do we make that distinction? This sounded similar to the answers I’d heard before, and I was looking for specifics. I asked again, trying to force him to draw a line in the sand, and the second answer finally stuck with me. Holding on to an experience becomes detrimental when you can’t recall why you don’t want to do something. When you encounter an event that you resist, if you can ask yourself “why am I resisting this?” and come up with the answer, you’re recalling knowledge. When you encounter an event that you resist and you ask that same question and come up with a feeling of undefinable fear, an “I don’t know” or worst of all, “I’ve always been afraid of that”, you’re holding on to an unhealthy experience. The experience has become unhealthy because you’re likely drawing false conclusions from it. The reason being is that when you haven’t fully diagnosed a situation that resulted in pain. You may be resisting based on an incorrect link you’ve made between an event and a painful solution. An exaggeration would be that I wouldn’t stay home from work on the 17th of every month because I lost my first serving job on that day. I lost my serving job because I was a fairly (very) incompetent server.
Looking at another example, we use the classic metaphor of touching a hot iron for the first time. You put your hand on the iron and it burns you. If you can look at irons after that and say “don’t touch the iron when it is on because it will burn me” this realization will never impede your future interactions with irons. You correctly diagnosed the source of pain and the way to avoid it. On the other hand, walking away with an inexplicable fear of irons causing you to get all clothes dry cleaned for your entire adult life is a fairly bad consequence. Worst still would be if one of your parents asked you to get the iron and you lived your life avoiding anything your parents asked you to do. You might even hold on to this lesson late into your life, even if you made peace with irons and learned to use them safely. It’s a lot easier to connect a painful outcome to unrelated events leading up to it. In addition, the more traumatic the outcome, the more preceding events you will draw into the umbrella of perceived causes.
Your brain is an extremely powerful problem solving engine. You can derive correct solutions to problems in you head well beyond the current step you’re on in a matter of seconds. Your brain does this without exhausting every possible alternative. It uses information stored from past events and their outcomes without even realizing they’ve been accessed (in fact, unlocking the methodology behind this would be a huge breakthrough in the field of artificial intelligence). In that same way though, you should be conscious of the use of the powerful problem solving engine that is your brain. When you get to the solution of a problem, look back and check how you got there. Try to trace back how your brain came to that solution. Check back on the “library” of events and outcome you’re carrying around and make sure that conclusions you made in the past are necessarily correct. Your solutions to new problems are only as correct as the information made to facilitate the steps in between. If you’re at least aware you might have used a piece of information that isn’t completely correct, it might help you from making an incorrect leap of faith, or worse yet, missing out on something based on fears that were incorrectly founded.