Sean Moncrieff: My capacity to forget things is a form of self-protection

I feel like a car, trundling down the road and bits of me are falling off

“My brain and I are like two completely different people and if we bumped into each other in a pub, we wouldn’t get on.” Photograph: Getty Images

“My brain and I are like two completely different people and if we bumped into each other in a pub, we wouldn’t get on.” Photograph: Getty Images

 

Since the start of this execrable year, I can think of only two good nights: once when we went to a tapas restaurant – back then, the country was drunk on the foolish assumption that lockdown was coming to an end – while the second good night was more recent. We took to the bed and in a crazy rush of decadence watched two episodes of The Crown, drank wine and ate most of an advent calendar. And it wasn’t even December.

Herself said it reminded her of that night when she was pregnant and we both randomly woke at 4am. So, we got up, had tea and toast and a bit of a chat and went back to bed again. Do you remember that time?

I really want to remember it, but I don’t. While Herself remembers everything that ever happened ever, I seem to retain nothing. My memory blanks don’t just apply to our story but to much of my life. If any friend or acquaintance says: do you remember that time? I, invariably, don’t remember that time.

Sometimes, the story they tell me might be familiar in a that-probably-happened way; other times what I hear sounds like a work of fiction: my part in the yarn seems unlikely or ridiculous. Of course, they could be misremembering or just making it up.

Probably not though. Because I’ve always been like this. A person once suggested to me – in a clinical setting – that my capacity to forget things is a form of self-protection. I find it impossible to hold a grudge because I can’t remember any bad things that were done to me.

Yeah: you got away with it. You know who you are. It’s just that I don’t. And on balance, I don’t view this as a negative. Bitter feelings from the past can often constrict the present.

Function of aging

It’s just that I wish I had more of the pleasant memories. It may be a function of aging. The older you get, the more stuff there is to remember: not just life events but you have to find out about new terms and ideas. I regularly have to Google things like “pansexual” and “vlogger”. So much has to go in that inevitably other stuff gets pushed out.

And there’s less storage capacity: as you get older, the brain shrinks. The older you get, everything shrinks, or stretches. I get random pains from doing things that used to be effortless. I feel like a car, trundling down the road and bits of me are falling off.

I could accept this, as long as my brain was operating within the perimeters of some pre-agreed set of criteria. But the selection process seems completely arbitrary. I can remember the birth of Son Number One and Daughter Number Four but the births of Daughters One, Two and Three have blended in together. I know that for one of them, my car got clamped outside the Rotunda hospital.

Yet I can go into work and be told that an interview has been set up with a pansexual vlogger and I can remember – much to the annoyance of my colleagues – that I interviewed them seven years previously. On a rainy Tuesday.

It is rather disturbing that my brain and I don’t agree on what’s important to retain or discard: like we are two completely different people and if we bumped into each other in a pub we wouldn’t get on. Of course, that could have happened already but, you know, I can’t remember.

But it’s also fascinating how we can retain differing facts about each other. Memory, like relativity, all depends on where you were standing at the time and it’s a comfort to think that we all carry small parts of each other that might otherwise have been lost. Herself says she’s my external hard drive: which, apart from everything else, is kinda sexy.

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