increasing the ability to remember, improving the ability to forget, being able to selectively erase from memory what hurts, saddens, depresses or irritates, Cultivating humanity

The path to happiness: forgive, forgive yourself 

and forget...

By Javier Vidal-Quadras

To 'purify the memory' is a felicitous expression of the theologian Jutta Burggraf and is a fundamental process in the quest for happiness. A poor memory can be a good ally of happiness, especially if one forgets negative memories; although this is not easy, as negative events often have more impact than positive ones.

Memory is a Human Faculty that is, in Some Respects, Uncontrollable

With training it is possible to increase the capacity to remember, but it is more difficult to improve the capacity to forget. How useful it would be to be able to selectively erase from memory that which hurts, saddens, depresses, irritates or makes us angry! Were it not for the remembrance of offenses, there would be no need to forgive, nor would we experience a thirst for revenge. If we could forget our major defects, impotence and weaknesses, if the humiliations of the past could but vanish, we would avoid many of the small and great instances of depression that can beset us every day.

However, this ability to erase would dehumanize us: it would result in eliminating a valuable part of our life experience. Annulling past events would serve to hinder our ability to foresee future events. Basically, the phrase 'I forgive but I do not forget', said without rancor, is a plain truth: ‘I forgive you but I cannot forget, despite how hard I try.’ In fact, the effort to forget is pointless because it only tends to ingrain the ungrateful memory, which ends up influencing us even more powerfully.

Healing, Cleansing and Purifying the Memory

Purifying the memory is something quite different, however. It consists of healing and cleansing our thoughts. To purify the memory is to remember the offenses as forgiven, the weaknesses as accepted, the mistakes as understood. We remember the fact but we have been able to transform it, reinterpret it, heal it and rehabilitate it, giving it a new meaning through forgiveness, acceptance and understanding. We are thus able to say 'I forgive and forget', because here forgetting does not mean ceasing to remember - which is not in our power - but in remembering without pain.

Moreover, without this purification process it is very difficult to forgive oneself. The inability to neutralise the memory of its interpretative power, that is, the subjective meaning I attribute to it, will inevitably result in an endless downward spiral of resentment, criticism, self-pity and/or depression. Without purification, the mind becomes clouded, defects are magnified, virtues are ignored and reality becomes distorted and is eventually lost sight of. We lawyers see it often: hearts closed in on themselves, incapable of discovering in the other a glimpse of goodness or humanity. There comes a time when everything is misinterpreted and misrepresented with the sole intention, often unconsciously, of confirming one's own prejudices. Our own fears prevent us from seeing and we end up trapped in a past that, in reality, no longer exists anywhere but in our memory.

To forgive is to Decide: It is a Question of Freedom

The purification of memory is not easy. It is, first of all, a matter of freedom. Only I can decide to do it; but, of course, I can also choose to blame others, thus feeding resentment and pride. Or I can blame myself, thus becoming a victim and giving into self-pity. Sometimes there is a hidden pleasure in this attitude. Both responses are negative and preclude the possibility of forging a positive way forward, thereby detrimentally shaping and predisposing my emotions.

The secret is to focus on the feelings of rage, anger or resentment, to stop fighting against them while also not giving in to the temptation to analyse or interpret them, e.g. ‘He did it on purpose, he knew it, he wanted to hurt me, he had to; how could it happen to me, how could I not think of it?’, which only serve to manipulate and distort reality so that the ego (ah, pride!) takes over. Feeling anger, pain, resentment and discouragement is human and part of the healing process. It is important to let the feelings flow, allowing them to run their course until they spend themselves. 

And, once the negative feelings have diminished, one is eventually able to view the situation with gratitude, realising that the letting go has provided an opportunity for personal growth. Having purified the memory, we are able to recall the event without pain, as just another biographical event. We are also able to forgive others and ourselves... and to forget. Pain will have been transformed into gratitude.

Original article in Spanish