Memories, both good and bad have always fascinated me as topics for rumination and research. I had wanted to do a second part of this post but somehow it remained unwritten. I have now started working on it and will be posting it soon. So I thought of sharing this one again to refresh readers’ memories before going on to the next part 🙂
Memory is such a wonderful thing. Don’t we all love going down memory lane because it makes us happy? I would say that it is definitely more pleasant than indulging in a bout of nostalgia. Memories are vibrant, while nostalgia often gives rise to a plethora of emotions ranging from wistfulness to sadness to dissatisfaction – all negative ones. Of course, while walking down memory lane sometimes unpleasant memories do push their way into our consciousness.
How do I know? Some years ago when I was suffering from severe drug-induced insomnia after a surgery, I used the trick of harking back to my childhood, recreating the scenes and images in great detail to help me relax and fall asleep in a trice. But as I mentioned earlier, sometimes they led to a particularly unpleasant or sad memory that in turn led to a chain of other such memories and then, Poof! I was wide awake and fidgeting even more than before!
Memories are indelibly imprinted in our subconscious minds and could surface unexpectedly and unbidden, at odd times. They are of different kinds and sometimes are much more than just personal ones. In fact, they are the basis our history, culture, arts, festivals, celebrations, commemorations, discoveries and inventions – the very basis of society and human civilisation.
Relationships are based on memories too, which is why there is no love without memories. Even gadgets and gizmos have memories, for heaven’s sake! And cyberspace is the repository of anything that goes online. What can function without memory? Precious nothing, if you ask me. But the most important characteristic of memories is that they need to be shared if one wants to enhance the joy or reduce the pain associated with them.
While we understand why we need pleasant memories, it is important to understand why unpleasant and downright traumatic ones are equally necessary. They are the ones that teach us to apply them when faced with similar situations that are not of our making.
In the Harry Potter series, J.K.Rowling gives a fascinating glimpse into the mystery and power of memory – the Patronus, the Pensieve, memory modification carried out on muggles when they happened to witness a magical occurrence and so on. The Patronus, which is the image conjured by the mind by focusing on happy memories, has the power to dispel even the Dementors or death-eaters. That is as real as it gets in this magical series. In an interview to The Times (UK), J.K.Rowling had said that she had created Dementors as a personification of depression.
‘It was entirely conscious, and entirely from my own experience. Depression is the most unpleasant thing I have ever experienced…It is that absence of being able to envisage that you will ever be cheerful again. The absence of hope.’
I am especially fascinated by the pensieve because it can help me organise my memories and deal with them at leisure without worrying about forgetting them. Why, I can even share them with someone whom I trust enough, without actually recounting them!
I would like to share an anecdote about the younger one here about the time he was five or six. He often used to hang around his elder brother and his friends and probably heard them discuss about humans having evolved from apes. His imagination must have run away with him, for he looked decidedly troubled when he came to me.
‘Amma, if we were all monkeys once, why don’t we remember anything about it?’ he asked in all earnestness.
It was an effort to control myself, from bursting out laughing. I tried to explain the whole thing in a way he could understand, but was not sure he did. Maybe he had a point there, what with scientists discovering DNA memory some years later – we should have been able to remember how we had behaved as monkeys! I wonder if he remembers this incident today 🙂
Coming back to the post, for all our wishing that we could forget unpleasant memories, can we live without memory? Because if we want to forget bad memories, we have to give up the good ones too. So when I came across The Giver, a Newbery Honor book for young adults by Lois Lowry, I could not resist it, as it dealt with memory and its significance to human beings. Even though I don’t much like futuristic novels or sci-fi, The Giver had me hooked from the word go.
I am not going to do a book review here, but only talk about how Lowry has woven her tale around memory — or the lack of it.
Let us first look at the positive things in this hypothetical society. There is contentment because the citizens have all their needs met; there is no dissatisfaction since they don’t remember anything other than their present life and so there is no comparison — either good or bad with the past; there is no unemployment since each is assigned a profession at the age of 12 after which he or she gets trained in it to work till retirement; there is no crime since all citizens have no personal possessions, are well fed and taken care of; there are no rapes or other sexual crimes since all adults are given pills to control sexual passion once they enter adolescence; there is sameness and homogeneity with no differences in social and financial positions of the citizens.
And now for the drawbacks: geneticists have managed complete homogeneity in everything, and have worked on the memories of the citizens over ages so that they have forgotten colour, shapes, contours, culture, music, literature and arts. The landscape is flat, the sky and fields are colourless; there are no mountains and valleys or deserts; people don’t remember anything earlier than their own lifetime, which means that they have no concept of generations, grandparents and above all, history. The family unit is for convenience – of raising children till they are ready to take their places in the society. With feelings controlled by the ubiquitous rules, there is no love or any other positive emotions; there are no personal choices for anything — from getting a bicycle before the stipulated age of 10, finding a life partner and having babies. Coming to babies, they are born to assigned women and then given up for adoption; any indication that they are not fit means that they are ‘released’ in infancy. Releasing is used for adults too…those transgressing the rules of the society are ‘released’ to go ‘elsewhere’ after the third transgression.
In this society, governed by a committee of Elders, with a Chief at the head, scientists have done away with individual memory, but decide that they can’t delete them completely, for they know that memories are the fount of wisdom. Don’t we hark back to history to find a parallel, a solution to similar problems? So the Elders have invested the power of holding all the memories, of pain and pleasure, colours, joy and sorrow — of generations past — with the Chief Elder, who is called the Giver . He holds the highest honour in the community, for he dips into his reservoir of memories and comes up with a solution when the committee of Elders is faced with a problem of governance which cannot be resolved by them.
There is a catch here: His memories are not his own but second-hand, having been passed down by the previous Giver and ‘back, back, back, back…’ (Remember no one has the concept of a past? So there is no word for past.) Also, so fragile are these ancient secondhand memories, that the Giver loses them when he passes them on to his successor, who then becomes their sole holder.
Jonas, the young protagonist has been selected to become the next Giver and has to train to become the holder of memories (Receiver) Elated at being chosen at first, he soon learns that to be the holder of memories is more frustrating than exhilarating. Exhilarating, because of the wonderful sensations and the vast expanse of knowledge that he gets when that the Giver passes them on to him through his touch, and frustrating because he is forbidden to share them with anyone. As he experiences colours, heat and cold and even sunshine, for the first time in his life, he yearns to share them with his best friend and family. Of what use is all the joy unlocked by memories when one can’t share them? He begins questioning the lack of choices and frets that he can’t opt out of being a Receiver.
When Jonas asks the Giver why the wonderful and sometimes painful memories can’t be shared, the Giver replies: “But then everyone would be burdened and pained. They don’t want that. And that’s the real reason The Receiver is so vital to them, and so honored. They selected me – and you – to lift that burden from themselves.”
How the Chief Elder and Jonas deal with this dilemma, forms the rest of the book. What comes through in this book is not just how dystopian a well regulated and controlled society can be despite the apparent benefits, but the significance of memories as the fount of wisdom. And finally how memories – both good and bad – can become burdens when they can’t be shared. This is the first of a quartet of books and I would love to read the others if I can find them in affordable paperback.
To round off, the next time you are struck with nostalgia, try going down memory lane instead. It is definitely more rewarding.
Homepage image courtesy: Fine Art America
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