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Happiness and Forgetting

Anyone who who cannot forget the past entirely and set himself down on the threshold of the moment, anyone who cannot stand, without dizziness or fear, on one single point like a victory goddess, will never know what happiness is; worse, he will never do anything that makes other people happy. 

I have a rather, let's say, "above average" strength of memory, which, gratefully, has served me well in my profession in that I am able to quickly recall ideas or lectures from years past, recite lines from writers when I need them, or relate experiences to provide examples for this or that point I am making in a lecture. To be sure, memory always comes in handy. It is easy to surmise that, for a businessman for example, being able to retain various concerns and keep them in the foreground can only serve them well: every small thing is considered, every person is kept in mind, giving you a view of the whole while seeing it also in detail.

But memory, however necessary for "success", could also be turned into a weapon that reverses itself and strikes you. Those who remember everything are the very ones which have the inclination to despair. Because if nothing escapes you, then everything--good or bad, fortunate or otherwise, happiness and melancholy--can remain hostage to the mind; and there, in a room which has no doors or windows, the only light which shines on them, preventing them to hide, is the steady light of memory. 

Thus you see every smile and feel once again the warmth of your tears from way back; in the corner emerges the face of a lost friend or the ghost of her who used to give you happiness; those dead gifts which now are as heavy as rocks, those symbols of hurt, tokens which teach you once more the lesson that time gives and takes everything away. And since it is in our nature to magnify the loss instead of the gain, to mark the times which shook our faith instead of those who turned us around (are they not in the end the same? By the altar in my room still stands a bottle of spoiled wine; it was the sole witness when I nearly surrendered but did not, choosing life). Why do we have this preference for retaining in our minds those people who hurt us, those nights which almost lost us?

Because pain marks us, wounds us. A sharp knife cuts you--you remember that, you learn from that, that knives open us and opening us we lose a part of ourselves. Happiness does not take anything away, it adds; but when something is added to us, we merely feel larger, expanded. But sorrows diminish us till we grow small, till we thin out and approximate the substance of Nothing--hence we feel useless, numb, "worth nothing." Yes, I recall also with fondness pleasant pasts. Do we not take photographs of happy events?--but happy only, mind you: never those breakups, those departures, those failures. We recall images of happiness, but images are for the eyes only, whereas the whole body absorbs the impact of misfortune's blows. The body itself is the film which is exposed to the darkness. That is why I literally shiver upon remembering that painful memory, while I only replay in my mind like a silent slide show frozen stills from better days.    

Nietzsche is correct. The heaviest burden of the inability to forget is that it paralyzes you. We speak often of "you have to move forward", "you have to use your hands", "do something", heck, "exercise." I've been told all these things and many more ("eat chocolate" is another). Looking back, they are all indeed helpful for a depressed man--how else do you crack the ice which immobilized you but by chipping away at it, struggling against it. But these things are easy to say. To move is the last thing the depressed would want to, or can do; that's too difficult, even impossible. Action requires levity, spirit, energy--the very things that were taken away from me, the very things I lost in the poverty of despair. Precisely: hurtful memories, which are really already nothing--dead, past--, become heavy chains that prevent my motion. And because those heavy chains are "only" of the mind, they are the memories themselves. 


At times I wore those chains voluntarily, though, even if I can already break free from them. I had become afraid of what I will see when I once again open my eyes, what I will go through, say, if I once again give love of life a chance. Like a prisoner who'd rather stay locked up because the open world terrifies him, I hid in my prison because I did not want to become imprisoned again, and repeat what is still fresh to my memory. This is the double accomplishment of that devil called memory: He stands before the door so you cannot escape, and he is behind the same door in case you do--ready to be your escort, watching your every move from then on, cautioning you that it can happen all over again, or that everything will happen all over again, what precisely Nietzsche's own devil announced: the eternal recurrence of the same.

You never lose the devil, in the same fashion that you never really lose your memory. But sometimes you just forget that he is there, you fail to notice his presence, or--you learn to accept that he will never go away. And the best way is to get along with him, know him. And perhaps, who knows?, you can turn him into a sweet angel who will remind you of that higher lesson: that being afraid of the same painful thing happening again can only be possible because you were able to forget just enough to give yourself another crack at happiness.

Paul Klee. Angelus Novus. 1920.



  1. I really like this entry. I've read this many times on screen and on paper (I printed it and some other posts too).

  2. Thanks, Christina. This problem has been close to me for a long time already.

    But yes, we do learn to forget and can even claim happiness. It's one of time's gifts.

    Have a good one.


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