In My Own Write: A softening of memory

Why guilt is not only unhelpful, but counterproductive.

By
September 13, 2011 21:40
September 11 memorial

Obama and Bush walking to september 11 memorial. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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Jordana Horn’s moving “I remember that we will forget 9/11 again,” published a day after the 10th anniversary of September 11, continued to occupy me even after I had finished the piece and turned to the next item. It seemed to go beyond the usual “I was there” format to illustrate a truth about the way we humans are constructed, to say something important about emotional limits and the possibilities that can – paradoxically – grow out of them; and to expose guilt as a thoroughly unhelpful emotion.

What particularly stuck in my mind was the lilting phrase “softness of memory,” which – far from the vulgar taunt you sometimes hear, people being called “soft in the head” – conjured up the image of landscapes painted in pastel watercolors.

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For what is our emotional makeup but a sort of internal landscape? “September 11 is no longer omnipresent…” wrote The Jerusalem Post’s New York correspondent. “We have forgotten the panic and fear… how smiling and laughing afterward felt wrong. We have forgotten how we felt sad, crumpled and broken… “Now in 2011,” she continued, employing an image that must have struck a chord with every Israeli regardless of whether he or she had been personally involved in a terror attack, ”we see the lights downtown but have forgotten the horrible smell of that smoke, burning metal and flesh.”

Some may feel that the act of forgetting the details of life-threatening incidents, collective or personal, shows a lack of sensitivity, an egotistic attitude of “I’m all right, Jack,” unworthy by definition. Not so.

IMAGINE if our psychic makeup were such that we retained every sound, sight and smell of the living nightmare that is a terror or some other horrible attack.

Imagine if the layers of horror it encompassed were to press forever on our nerve-endings, a sort of ongoing electric shock that accompanied us throughout our lives.

There are people who do suffer unbearably in this way, and their suffering is called post-traumatic syndrome.

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Once it went unrecognized, notably in Holocaust survivors and in soldiers who returned like zombies from battle; today the condition is widely acknowledged as a possible after-effect of any kind of severe trauma and addressed as quickly as possible afterwards.

Sometimes sufferers can be helped, sometimes not; but a life lived with this immense weight pressing down is a wretched existence that surely no one was ever meant to endure.

“The softness of memory can be a mercy,” Horn says about the act of forgetting. I would go further and call it an essential condition for any kind of normal functioning.

Implied, therefore, in Horn’s sensitive account is a valuable message for survivors of any tragedy: that they ought not to feel any guilt about finding, over time, that the stark edges of horror or loss have become smoothed out, and that a mental and emotional evenness has settled in.

It doesn’t mean they are uncaring of those who died, or that they have really forgotten what happened. It is simply a necessity for mental health, a way survivors can incorporate traumatic events in their lives without being crushed by them.

IT SEEMS important to stress this no-guilt factor because it’s my impression that many of us carry around an unnecessary burden of guilt. Myself, aware of my (Jewish?) tendency to feel guilty about all kinds of things, am warmed by the idea that “softness of memory,” far from being a negative trait, can actually be a gift of nature, a sort of emotional tranquilizer that makes it possible to move on.

Softness of memory is what makes it possible to make room in one’s life for a new partner after losing a person one has lived with for a great part of one’s life. It is what allows broken hearts to mend and a new love to take the place of the old.

It doesn’t mean we have genuinely forgotten those who meant so much to us in the past, simply that they no longer occupy center-stage.

Even in cases where we have wronged someone, feeling guilty about it is not only a waste of time and energy, but in fact counterproductive, because it often takes the place of making amends.

I had this pointed out to me some years ago during a course at the Alfred Adler Institute. The phenomenon of feeling guilty, our lecturer pointed out, is in actuality a self-indulgence that can feel like a satisfactory end in itself, with no further action necessary.

“When we fail in our behavior,” he said, “for example, not visiting an elderly relative in hospital, we often say something like, ‘Oh, I feel so bad about it… I really should have gone to see her,’ and so on. And because that realization does cause an unpleasant sensation, we feel we have thereby ‘done our duty’ – and poor auntie never does get that visit.”

IN remembering what was perpetrated against them a decade ago, Americans – while firmly rejecting the guilt some would impute to them, suggesting that the atrocity was a result of their country’s policies – must deal with the enormity of a gross crime against their people and nation that became known simply as 9/11. Their annual national memorialization is deep and impressive and reaches up from every corner of the country.

In Israel, our reality is somewhat different. Here one outrageous blow against our people and our nation seems to follow on the heels of another. As a result, they all become mixed up in a single kaleidoscope of sorrow.

When Udi and Ruth Fogel and their children Yoav, 11, Elad, 4, and baby Hadas were murdered in their beds in Itamar by terrorists in March, we were plunged into shock and grief. But other terrorist outrages soon followed; the eight Israelis killed and more than 30 wounded in southern Israel last month in a massive assault of coordinated terror attacks is only the most recent.

In our shock and mourning over one month’s tragedy, we “forget” the previous month’s.

Sometimes it’s only weeks or days between outrages.

Only for the families and close friends of those killed does the atrocity not blend in with the others. They can’t forget, only face a long, painful and uneven softening of memory that will allow them eventually to carry on with meaningful lives.

As for the rest of us, we must not allow ourselves to feel guilty over “forgetting” one tragedy because it was displaced by another soon after. There is only so much emotional weight we can take and stay sane.

WHICH is why our memorial days – when, as Horn puts it, “the calendar steps on my heart and tells me: Remember!” – are so vital for our personal and national mental balance.

And despite the sensory overload that seems to be our lot in our homeland, it seems fitting that on those days, we should honor as many fallen individuals as we can.

That is why, when Remembrance Day comes around next year, I’ll locate as many pictures of war and terror victims as I can mentally retain, so I can see each one in my mind’s eye when the siren sounds.

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