Progressive Amnesia

Some time ago, I decided to start committing some poems to memory. Part of my reasoning for this came from my love of poetry, but my other reasoning, and perhaps the more notable of the two, came from something I’ve begun to notice more of in my life, as well as in the lives of others around me. These days, it seems as if more and more of our “memory work” is done by something other than our brains. A somewhat trivial example of this can be seen in the way we store phone numbers. Years ago, I had to either write down phone numbers of people I wanted to call, or I had to memorize them. As a result, I can still remember the home phone numbers of most of my childhood friends to this day, even though I haven’t dialed most of those numbers in years. Nowadays, when I want to remember someone’s phone number, I simply plug it into my phone, or better yet, I have them type it in, and then my phone’s memory bank does the rest.

This is something I’ve thought of for years, really ever since I first got my own cell phone as a teenager. But lately, I’ve started thinking about it in larger terms. What other areas of my life am I being dependent upon an external device to do what my own body is capable of on its own? I think that what really turned me on to the practice of memorizing poetry was fear—the fear of not being able to create new memories, or worse yet, the fear of not being able to remember anything at all.

Truth be told, memory loss doesn’t just seem to be present in our modern day culture—it seems to be self-imposed. With each day that passes, we seem to be reaching more and more for help from our surrogate selves.

A while back, I listened to a story about a man named Thad Starner who had created a mini-computer that could be worn on his glasses. The computer had a remembrance agent that could be used to store information, and that information could be accessed at any time. For example, if he were to meet someone new, he could program in all the information that he learned about that person, so that the next time he saw them, he could have access to all that information, and therefore, he could remember it.

On one hand, technological achievements such as this one are exciting, because they have the potential to, in some ways, make our lives simpler, and perhaps even more enjoyable, especially if the technology could be used in the medical community to aid patients suffering from amnesia. But on the other hand, there’s also the possibility that through relying on external sources to do what our own bodies should otherwise be capable of, we may in time lose those capabilities altogether. In other words, in giving the task of remembering away to another source, there is a chance that we may lose the ability to remember.

Albert Schweitzer, a Nobel Peace Prize-winning writer and theologian, once wrote:

Happiness is nothing more than good health and a bad memory.

I have a lot to say about that. In Schweitzer’s defense, I don’t think he was saying that we should forget the past, but rather that we should not be bound up by it, namely, our failures. There is sound advice in that. But there are many ways to interpret a quote such as that one, and to some, those words may invoke the reaction to “let the past die,” or worse yet, forget it all together. This is where things get tricky.

Back when I decided to start committing certain poems to memory, one of the very first poems I decided to memorize was Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If.” The poem is written from the perspective of a father who is speaking to his son. It begins:

If you can keep your head while all about you

Are losing theirs and blaming it on you

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you

And make allowance for their doubting too

The poem goes on this way, offering various sorts of advice, and it ends by saying, in essence, if you can do all these things, “you’ll be a man, my son.” I memorized this poem first because I wanted to remember it, and because I also wanted to be able to share it with my own sons one day.

This past week, Kipling’s poem made the news. It was painted as a mural on the wall of a newly refurbished students’ union building at the University of Manchester. But it wasn’t there for long. Soon afterwards, some student leaders from the school came and scrubbed out the poem, replacing it with the words of Maya Angelou’s poem “Still I Rise.” Later, the union’s liberation and access officer issued a statement on social media, stating the reasoning for their choice to replace Kipling’s poem.

“We, as an exec team, believe that Kipling stands for the opposite of liberation, empowerment and human rights – the things that we, as an SU, stand for.”

The spokesperson went on to say of Kipling, “Well known as author of the racist poem The White Man’s Burden, and a plethora of other work that sought to legitimate the British empire’s presence in India and dehumanise people of colour, it is deeply inappropriate to promote the work of Kipling in our SU, which is named after prominent South African anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko.”

There’s no getting around the fact that Kipling was an imperialist. There’s no getting around the fact that his referenced poem “The White Man’s Burden” is a work that portrays non-whites as a lesser people. But to simply toss his name out of history is to overlook any possible good that might have come from his writings.

Don’t misunderstand me here. I love Maya Angelou’s work. But her writing is not separate from the context that makes it so powerful. Even in the poem that the students chose, Angelou wrote:

Out of the huts of history’s shame

I rise

Up from a past that’s rooted in pain

I rise

I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,

Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.

Angelou’s writing is lyrically powerful, but it is also culturally and historically powerful, because it is built upon a history that is full of shame worth rising from. In its very nature, her poem is reliant upon the pain of the past, because that pain is where it draws its strength. That pain is essential.

The students’ choice to scrub out Kipling’s poem is not unlike the desire that led individuals to seek out the removal of Confederate statues, and that desire is undoubtedly well-intentioned. But we don’t get to choose our past. We can’t simply take what we want from history and scrub out the rest. As Martin Luther King, Jr. put it:

We are not makers of history. We are made by history.

To say that any quotation of Rudyard Kipling is a promotion of racism is like saying that any quotation of Ernest Hemingway is a promotion of suicide, or that any quotation of Martin Luther King, Jr. is a promotion of adultery. You can’t just take the best of some people and the worst of others. Because history, like each one of us, is full of both scars and triumphs. But without the scars, you don’t get the triumphs. Without the bondage, you don’t get the freedom. Without the condemnation, you don’t get the grace.

There’s no avoiding the fact that there are moments in history that most of us wish we could forget. More and more, we seem to be relying upon a potentially skewed understanding of happiness, that being that happiness can be achieved by having a bad memory, or more to the point, a highly selective memory. The temptation to blot out and unremember every shameful thing in our past is a strong temptation indeed, but if we can’t remember where we were and who we were, then where we are today and who we are today means nothing. As Maya Angelou herself put it:

History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.

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