Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Memory and Gratitude (1)

I've been thinking about the role of memory in daily life and mood for a while, ever since I realized that O. just isn't as naturally inclined as I am to spend time thinking about the past. So I've been pondering what remembering accomplishes, and that's what this post is about. I'm pulling together several ideas:
  1. The way you remember (or don't) shapes your time orientation.
  2. The way you remember affects your mood, enabling gratitude and happiness.
  3. The way you remember can be a virtue; failing to remember can be a moral failure.
1. Remembering shapes your time orientation.
This video introduced me to the idea of people living in "different time zones." Watch it, it's only 10 minutes long but it's really interesting!

Zimbardo in the video lists six "time zones" that people live in:
  • Past, Positive and Negative
  • Present, Hedonist and Fatalist*
  • Future, Immediate and Distant
*He only names the first three of them so I made up my own names for the others, based on his explanations.

People with a Past Positive orientation enjoy remembering the good old days; people with a Past Negative orientation always remember the things they regret. On the other end, people with a Future orientation don't do much remembering, particularly if they have a Distant Future orientation wherein the present and certainly the past don't matter much, because Real Life is going to begin much, much later--in the afterlife or, in a more tech-y twist, when the technological singularity arrives.

Your time orientation has important consequences for how you live your life.  Zimbardo says, for instance, that "most of us are here [at the seminar] because we are [immediate] future-oriented," that future oriented people make plans and progress while present oriented people mostly don't, that a past-positive orientation can make you happy but a past negative orientation is filled with regrets, and that "all addictions are addictions of present hedonism."

O. for a long time was future-oriented in a way that elevated the glorious Future and devalued the flawed Present: i.e., Future Distant, Singularitarian style. This future-orientation hindered him in enjoying the present (because it could always be better) and planning for the immediate future (like getting homework done). In the past several years, O. has been changing time-zones, giving more value to remembering the past.

C.S. Lewis discusses in The Screwtape Letters how enticing a person to focus on the future is the best way to make that person unhappy and cut off from God. A person who thinks of the past may remember a time when God helped him, and turn to God in the present to pray; a person who thinks of the present can experience God's presence first hand; but a person who thinks only of the future can be lost forever in a morass of dreams and fears. I am glad that O. is remembering more, because it means he is turning less toward the future.

2. Remembering enables gratitude.
Generally speaking, grateful people are happy, while ungrateful people are dissatisfied. I'd rather be grateful and happy than ungrateful and unhappy, and I wish the same for my loved ones. Gratitude is largely enabled by memory. If you live exclusively in the present, then in a pleasant present you can be grateful and happy, but when a moment of pain comes, you will be overwhelmed because pain is all you have. On the other hand, if you remember past good things and bring those memories with you into the present, you can be grateful for those past events for years and years. Present suffering can be ameliorated by memories of past pleasures, as in Zimbardo's "Past Positive" orientation. Present despair can be broken by memories of past redemptions, as Lewis says.

Note: Of course there are also things that a person could legitimately need to forget or never think about. e.g. the case of anyone with PTSD.

3. Remembering is a prerequisite to virtue
Morality is connected to intentional behavior, so we don't normally think of forgetting as immoral since it's (typically) not deliberate. Likewise we don't think of remembering as virtuous. But memory isn't not all unintentional or uncontrollable. Consider: how often do you forget that you owe someone money vs. that someone owes you money? (Maybe you remember it more when you owe money because of the potency of guilt or obligation.) We forget selectively; we forget the things we don't want to think about or don't value. Likewise, we remember selectively; if the emotional weight isn't great enough to guarantee remembering, we can choose to write things down (in a calendar or a journal). In that sense, it seems reasonable to hold a person accountable for forgetting something. Memory has a moral dimension.

Having a good memory doesn't necessarily make you a good person, but it does enable you to do good in ways that a person who does not remember simply can't. Virtues like loyalty, gratitude, and keeping promises rely directly on memory. Others, like hope and love, are made a lot easier through memory (it's easier to love a person who is being cruel to you when you remember times in the past when they treated you kindly). For both kinds, remembering is a virtue.

To be responsible, you have to remember your commitments. If you don't, you will let people down. To be truthful, you have to to remember the past accurately. If you don't, you'll misrepresent what happened according to how you felt about it. To keep your promises, you have to remember making them. If you don't remember, you'll hurt and disappoint people. To be loyal, you have to remember your relationships. If you forget, you'll betray people. To live virtuously, you have to remember things. Forgetting makes you hurt people and break promises.

More on the virtue of remembering as seen in the Bible next post.

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