How often we hear it said: "I can forgive an insult but I cannot forget it!" Sometimes the words are spoken regretfully as though the speaker would add, "I wish I could forget it." But oftener is there not in the thought of the speaker a secret feeling of satisfaction that, even were such forgetting possible, it would still be unreasonable and undesirable—as though he would say, "Duty compels me to forgive, but of course I am not obliged to forget; to forget an insult would be a condescension on my part which cannot be reasonably expected of me; at is contrary to human nature, and therefore, I say, it is impossible and I cannot forget? "In this perverted view the clear remembrance of the insult seems to add luster to the moral beauty of the forgiveness, and the would-be forgiver would fain cultivate and perpetuate his memory of the insult in order to enhance by contrast the quality of his forgiveness. He would almost exalt a vice to the rank of a virtue. To his mind, the injury and its forgiveness assume a sort of dynamic polarity or complementary relationship—an artistic contrast as of two opposing tones in the color-scheme of a picture, or like the two notes of a discord in a harmonic progression in music. "The memory of past favors," says an accomplished delineator of human character, "is like a rainbow, bright, vivid, and beautiful; but it soon fades away. The memory of injuries is engraved on the heart and remains forever." Such, indeed, is the tendency of unregenerate human nature; but that the memory of an insult should remain "forever" is a concession to fatalism that cannot be allowed to pass unchallenged. As there is a Memoria Technica, or art of memory, so there is undoubtedly an art or, as Pope calls it, a "science," of forgetting. There is in the human mind a lethal chamber—a limbo to which he who is determined to do so can banish all undesirable thoughts from "the Kingdom of his mind," and send them to sleep for ever. Happy he who knows the road to that land where all things are forgotten! To indicate that road is the object of the present paper.
At first sight, one is apt to regard a defective memory as an affliction to be borne without reproach, and to dismiss as unworthy of serious consideration the question, Is memory within our control; and, if so, to what extent? Do we not all forget things in spite of our best resolutions and try in vain to forget what we would willingly bury in oblivion? "I quite forgot" is an excuse we frequently use as an apology for our own neglect of duty, and yet how unwilling we are to accept it as a satisfactory excuse from our friends, and especially our servants! If we go to the root of the matter we shall find that a defective memory, like most other physical infirmities, is subject to treatment by the mental healer and may be improved by cultivation or made worse by neglect. The excuse "I quite forgot it" is as often due to a defective principle as to a defective memory. "Where things which ought to be remembered are forgotten once through a bad memory, they are forgotten half-a-dozen times for want of a disposition to do to others as we would have them do to us." Thus our forgetfulness may be due to a sleeping conscience and a sluggish principle. For instance, we have heard of absent sons who forget to write to their father except when they are "hard up" and in need of money to supply them with the means of extravagance. Is this a proof of a bad memory, or of a bad heart?
In the daily course of our life we all have recourse to mnemonic aids of one kind or another. We all have note-books, birthday albums, and other books of remembrance. Some of us tie knots on our handkerchiefs. We have rhymes and formulas and alliterative jingles and proverbial sayings innumerable to remind us of all manner of things that are worth remembering. Even elaborately graven-stones and brasses to keep alive the memory of our lost ones. All these things, while they testify to the fleeting character of the memory, also show that this power of the mind to recall the past is capable of being trained and brought under the control of the human will.
It is a well-known fact that we can see clearly only those things that we consciously look at by focusing our eyes upon them. In other words, we see—in the true sense of the word—only what we wish to see and try to see. Hence there is passive seeing and active seeing, and hence also the saying that "None are so blind as those who will not see." And memory is only seeing the past, and so we remember clearly only what we try to remember, or, as the phrase is, "call to remembrance? In every such effort of memory we construct a mental chain or sequence of associated ideas in which one memory leads up to another. It is like getting back to the starting-point of a journey by retracing our footprints in the snow.
Again, we cannot see clearly, nor can we think clearly, of two different things at the same time without a special mental effort. We cannot think of the past and of the present simultaneously. Some people are always thinking of their past troubles, always nursing and cherishing them as if they were desirable objects of contemplation. Thus to them the past, which is really a thing that no longer exists, appears as a reality, and the more their thoughts dwell upon it the more real it appears. Bearing this principle in mind, the art of forgetting the past is both definite and easy of application. It is this: think vigorously of the present. The more you fix your thought on the present the more completely you forget the past. Therefore, if you would forget your past grievances, your sins, or your failures, think seriously of your present duties and perform them with all diligence. This will occupy all your thoughts and draw over the past a curtain which will effectually hide it from your view.
Some people have what in the law courts is often facetiously called a "convenient" memory on the part of some unwilling witness undergoing cross-examination—a memory, that is to say, which remembers what its possessor wishes to remember and forgets all else. The abuse is a clear proof of the existence of the principle; for, indeed, such a memory can be, and often is, made to order; for, as our opinions and convictions depend to a great extent upon our will, so do our memories. Like flowers, the thoughts of the past may be kept alive by nursing and watering them; and so, by reversing the process, they can be starved and neglected until they dwindle and at last die from inanition. So true is this of "small injuries," that, as Fuller says, we have only to "slight" them, and "they will become none at all."
If, therefore, you want to forget, and want the world to forget, your friend's faults, think much of his virtues. Make a list of them. Pin it up on your wall. Proclaim his good name on the house-tops. Thus his virtues will crowd out of sight all his vices and cover his faults with the mantle of your pity, for charity covereth a multitude of sins. Is your friend dead? Then all the more need why you should screen his faults, for he can no longer defend himself.
Let us then cast aside for ever that miserable confession of moral impotence, "I forgive this injury but I can never forget it." Cannot forget? "Never forget?" Ah! how very easily we do forget some things! We can forget if we will. Remembrance is under our control, and if remembrance, therefore also, more or less, is non-remembrance. It is to be done by practice and systematic training. We remember things chiefly because we wish and try to remember them; we forget them by letting go our hold of them. And this applies to our injuries, our troubles, our sins, and our failures.
Learn, on this subject, two important lessons—one from Nature, the other from Art. (1) When Nature wants to get rid of the dead leaves of Autumn, she gently pushes them off by means of a new progeny of leaf-buds. So we may push out evil thoughts by growing good thoughts; so we may crowd out the remembrance of past failures by making new resolutions. We remember because we continually renew our wish to remember. Let the willing cease, and the thought will gradually fade from the memory. "An injury, unanswered, in course of time grows weary of itself, and dies away in a voluntary remorse."
And here is the second lesson. (2) We have all seen frescoes. Have you ever seen a fresco painter at work? This is what he does. He lays his colors on the damp porous plaster. Gradually they sink in and almost disappear. Then he renews the color again, and yet again, and so on, until the colors remain to bloom forever. And this is exactly how memory works. You may "refresh" the memory or you may let it die. Some nurse their grievances as they do their sorrows; and, as the doleful picture tries to fade, they foolishly keep on restoring it. The moral of this lesson is unmistakable—"Out of sight out of mind." Restore only the bright pictures of life and let God's smile shine through. As to the sad, ignoble pictures, let them sink out of sight. "Let the dead past bury its dead."
Although in passing through life we are obliged to see all things, good and bad alike, we are not obliged to look at the bad. For example, we see in the darkness of night the innumerable stars of heaven as an inextricable assemblage of points of light. Now we fix our gaze on a particular spot of the firmament, and directly we distinguish a definite pattern—it may be the three stars in the belt of "Orion," or the seven stars in the "Great Bear," or that little cloud of star-dust, "the sweet influence of the Pleiades." So in looking at the great Past, the whole appears as a formless chaos unless we fix our regard upon some definite point or incident and consciously trace out the pattern of the life-tapestry we have woven bit by bit. Relinquish our hold of the clue by turning our thoughts to the present, and the past becomes once more a hazy picture of indefinite form and color.
After all, the Past is, at best, only a dream—the ghost of a vanished Picture which has forever ceased to exist. Do not try to bring it back again. If you think of it at all, let it be to recall your blessings, the loving kindness of God, the love of your parents, your friends, your teachers, your masters, your servants. Do not indulge in vain regrets and self-pity. Bewail not the wasted past, with all its opportunities lost, tasks unfinished, disappointments, failures. Now is the only reality. You cannot alter the Past; therefore let it die. You cannot command the Future; therefore take no anxious thought for the morrow. Over the Present alone you are Master, to make of it what you will—either a heaven or a hell. Therefore it is written: "Now is the accepted time; now is the day of Salvation."
and none are more ignorant of their growth and subtle workings than their own victims.
—William Ellery Channing