On the Ethics of Memory


At the end of every week of my yoga teacher training, the administrators gather all the participants in a circle and ask them to share how the program has been going for them so far. The question is driven partly by a desire to get feedback (always promptly and graciously acted upon), but mostly to identify and address “healing crises” as they arise (see my post below On the Detoxification of the Soul).

Yesterday’s discussion was understandably lengthier than the previous Friday’s, given that yet another intense week had been completed. People were experiencing remarkably similar things: hypersensitivity, insomnia, fatigue, pain (in various parts), stiffness (in varying degrees), and for a few, an increasing frustration at a perceived lack of progress.

There was one participant though who shared a struggle that deviated from the norm—a woman whose robust humor and good nature had won my admiration from the very beginning. She started by telling us how grateful she was to have all of us: how, in the last three weeks, we had provided an emotional haven for her. Many of us didn’t know it, she said, but she’d lived in Boracay before, and had left the island under painful circumstances. There was nowhere she could go without being assaulted by memories and reminders of the past —it was only when she was with us, she told us, that she could be free of the constant struggle of “forgiving and forgetting.” And it was through us, she also said, that she could re-create Boracay for herself: create new memories in the present to supersede those from the past, so that the island no longer needed to remain as a memorial to her grief.

Her admission, delivered so candidly and simply, allowed me to articulate the process I’d gone through when I visited Singapore seven weeks ago. When we’re called to move on—when some unnameable impulse from the depths of our self, or from life itself even, impels us to move forward—then it seems that we find ourselves drawn to the sites of our pain. We do it not because it serves as a mere gauge for the extent of our healing, but because it is the final and necessary step to our healing. We revisit these places to surrender old associations and inaugurate new ones—to forgive and forget, yes, but more importantly, to remember newly; to re-experience a place with the new strength we carry within ourselves and, on more fortunate occasions, with the affection and camaraderie of new friends.

The French philosopher Paul Ricoeur believed that the act of memory is an ethical act, and that the key to a happy life lies in knowing what and how to remember and in knowing what and how to forget. And as in other similarly profound words of wisdom, the challenge lies in being able to tell the difference.

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