Memory - The mental faculty of retaining and recalling past experience; the act or instance of remembering; recollection: spent the afternoon lost in memory.

Immediacy - An absolute state in which the producer and production becomes unified into one seamless line; a fusion of elements where the fusion itself is not simply invisible, but non-existent.

Oblivion - The condition or quality of being completely forgotten; the act or an instance of forgetting; total forgetfulness.

How Durable is the Moment?

I found out recently that the wife of a good friend is pregnant. He mentioned that she doesn't want a video camera around after the baby is born. She's convinced that he'll be behind the camera, disengaged, just recording and documenting the family's activities rather than actively participating in what's happening in front of the camera.

Initially surprising myself, I found that I agreed with her. As we all know, there's a big difference between mediated and unmediated experience and between experiencing and re-experiencing events. There are important disparities between looking at a piece of fruit, looking at a picture of a piece of fruit and remembering what a piece of fruit looks like. But, in order to be more actively engaged in the present, more engaged in living right now, should we avoid documenting our experiences? How valuable are those documents and the memories they trigger and what are the filters which separate what's important from what's unimportant? Is there such a thing as too many artifacts of experience and too many memories? Can their existence get in the way of actively and deliberately and directly participating in life?

Better Living through Oblivion

Are personal experiences important to document and remember? Certainly, it's good to remember the lessons learned in life as well as why and how they were learned. But why do we want to document things like a trip to the beach or the holidays with the family or a crazy night out with friends? Is it perhaps because when we're alone, one of the few things we have to keep us company is our memories? Do they give us a sense of who we are and where we fit into the world? Maybe we mistakenly think that recollections of our earlier selves and friends and loved ones are almost as good as the real thing.

I'm increasingly convinced that it's detrimental to actively document and archive personal experiences, whether they're in the form of photos or emails or videos or whatever. Too often it leads to getting bogged down with too many physical and digital artifacts of past activities and the memories they signify. They lead too easily to orienting conscious life toward the past rather than having it fixed on the present and maybe leaning a little toward the future. And memories can be dangerously confining inasmuch as past experiences often determine who we think we are right now.

As I was writing this I received an email from a friend I've worked with for several years that's leaving for another job. The email is an archive he made of all the funny messages we've sent back and forth over the years poking fun and otherwise irritating each other. Appropriately, the subject of the email is "Memories." I read through them all and laughed a little bit. We connect in a way that is expressed, perhaps most importantly for me, in a common sense of humor. Whenever we work or hang out together, we invariably spend a lot of our time making jokes and laughing. My initial inclination was to value those emails that we wrote over the years as documents that will serve later as pleasant memory generators whenever I happen to go through them again. But when I would actually do that? If he dies? If he moves away? When I've got absolutely nothing else to do besides go through old emails? Maybe I'll go through them again if he forgets he sent the email, resends the same archive later, and I make the assumption that it contains something new.

Rather than value those old emails and the memories they stand for, it's much more important to simply recognize that we share some things that are meaningful--friendship, sense of humor, love for music--and to look forward to the next time we hang out. And to make sure that when we do, that my consciousness is focused as completely as possible on that experience as it unfolds.

The greatest significance those old emails have isn't as a reminder of our shared time over the years, but as a signifier of how critical it is to deliberately concentrate on the present, even when it's boring and uneventful, without the clutter of memories, without reflection, and without assigning meaning to it. It's the essence of being alive.
© 2011 David Yates