Always Remember, Never Forget


Remembering is different from not forgetting. Remembering requires effort and intent, while forgetting is automatic. It happens in the absence of remembering.

“Not forgetting” boils down to hoping you will remember; but hope is an uncertain blessing — optimism based on the expectation of (or wish for!) a desired outcome. So for everything important, deciding to “not forget” is a gamble I will lose. To prune that risk, I try to always remember instead of to not forget.

To pull this off I built a lazy-man’s digital journaling habit. I deposit stubborn thoughts, lessons, quotes and observations into Google Calendar, then set arbitrary recurring reminders. The result is my very own knockoff of Tolstoy’s “A Calendar of Wisdom“.

Some reminders intrude daily, but most visit every few weeks, months or years. I don’t need to care about when they barge into my consciousness, which is why this works for me. The habit allows my entries to find me — wherever and whenever I am — instead of forcing me to find them.

Each reminder is an invitation to reflect. An opportunity to interrogate old memories for new revelations, disclosed thanks to more experience and nuanced perspectives — gifts graciously bestowed by that charitable benefactor called time. Each revelation is a dot, reaching for connection to other dots. More interrogation begets more dots, and more connections. Connections I use to map my psychological terrain and chart my course out of the cold wilderness of confusion, into the warm bosom of understanding — a nice place to be.

Equipped with understanding, I am empowered; to rewrite my made-up stories, with clarity, healing and compassion — for myself and others. New narratives, replace the old. Villains become heroes, and mysterious saboteurs are unveiled when I look in the mirror. Understanding gives me more control of what happens next, and guides me to the serenity of acceptance.

Notwithstanding the benefits of remembering, sometimes it’s good to forget. Remembering only good things would be a mistake. Remembering bad-for-you things, would be folly. The bad-for-you things keep us stuck, confused and traumatised for way too long; and catalyze difficult or impossible to repair injury to our psyche. The trick is to figure out which artefacts might be good to always remember; then welcome the sweet unburdening of forgetting the bad. Perhaps we should always remember, sometimes forget.

So, why write this love letter to remembering?

Because remembering is one gateway to transformation. Remembering kindles reflection; reflection sparks understanding; understanding ignites acceptance; and acceptance forges transformation.

This idea aligns beautifully with words a dear friend spoke to me, in conversation a few weeks ago:

We can’t be a supporting character in our own story. We have to be the protagonist.

A dear friend

This pure and cogent nugget of wisdom, landed with a resonant thud at the centre of my soul that night. I woke up contemplating — three sunrises later — how do I become the protagonist?

Becoming the protagonist has to be the human analogue, to a caterpillar metamorphosing into a butterfly. We forage the ingredients of transformation — insights, lessons, experience and perspective — carrying them on our trek out of the wilderness. We cocoon at the bosom, to rest and recover; then dissolve our former selves, combining with the foraged ingredients. We and they, become inseparable; solidifying into something new. We emerge rejuvenated, but also different from the organism we once were.

By the end of this transformation, from one version of ourselves to a startlingly different other, we gain new capacities; and magic becomes real: we have wings, and we can fly! A capability our former selves could never imagine — and why would we? There is nothing about the caterpillar we used to be, that suggests we might one day fly.

Suddenly, we are no longer marooned in the backyard garden that was our entire universe. With each flutter of our liberating new wings, our world expands. The horizon recedes, and more becomes possible — like starting with a blank slate. We finally see a world that was always there, but obscured; behind a veil and beyond the reach of our former selves. From our new in-flight perspective, caterpillar problems look like tempests in raindrops.

How things begin, is not how they end. Seven hundred and sixty-seven words ago, I thought always remembering was about holding on — to whatever was important to remember. I now realise that remembering is just the first step on a journey THROUGH transformation, TO letting go — of who we were, to become who we really are.

I am learning how to be. In the chaotic and messy middle of life, we are challenged to accept and confess: we are the authors; we choose the protagonists; we write the narratives; and we tell our stories.

Always remember, we have to fly.