A version of this post appeared here at this time last year, shortly after Sandy.
Hurricane Sandy seems long gone, and the memory of ten days without light and heat is slowly fading. But I haven’t yet forgotten the train-roar of the winds and the thunder of the huge limbs hitting the ground, and I don’t think I will. I remember listening on the car radio, a couple of days after the storm, to an interview with an elderly woman stranded by the outages on the seventeenth floor of a New York City high-rise, with no light, heat, or water. I remember the grim interview, but I don’t think I will for long. It will, though, spring back to me when I reread this blog in the future. Many of the memories that we think we will hold forever, even of disasters, would fade without the photos, stories, media coverage of “anniversaries,” or other reminders to prod us.
In general I don’t remember conditions, environments, routine events very well. I draw a blank when someone mentions how unusually warm or cold or rainy or dry it was a year ago. When I have a cold, I can’t easily remember what it’s like to feel healthy, and now that I’m healthy, I need to concentrate if I want to recall feeling sick. Like most people, I do remember well moments that were, in one way or another, important; they are usually about people and places, such as the first time I saw my wife-to-be, at a meeting. With age, memory seems to become a huge book of stories, faces, feelings. But much is left out. Most of the past fades away.
This is part of how we survive, of course. My friends and I in our sixties joke about our lapses, but normal forgetting is, at all ages, a sorting out, a letting go of what doesn’t fit, a mechanism for making sense and staying focused.
One kind of forgetting that can be a curse or a blessing is about the suffering of others. If I can’t remember for long my own illness or my own hurricane fears, how deeply can I expect to recall the pain of others? I may recall it vividly when I see reminders–organizations, fervent editorials. But if kindness depended solely on one’s memory, I think it would be rare. We help others not because we “remember the poor” but because, at rock bottom, cooperation is one of our survival strategies. We collaborate with those who suffer in order to strengthen both of us.