If It Is Forgotten, It Never Happened

by | Sep 10, 2018 | History, The Past


“Do you know that a man is not dead while his name is still spoken?”

Terry Pratchett, Going Postal


Does the past only exist as memories?

Or: If something is forgotten, does that mean it never happened?

The Prelude

You may have noticed, but my blog posts have been getting slightly shorter over time. There’s a natural ebb and flow, usually determined by how busy I am that week.

For the next few weeks, the posts will be even shorter—I have more abstract thoughts I’d like to share, but the topics are not broad by nature. This means there’s less to relate, and also less to research.

If you went to high school with me, or if you completed the International
Baccalaureate program, you might liken posts like these to Theory of Knowledge essays. They will be internal debates about the definition of words or concepts, accompanied by examples.

Just giving you a heads up, in case you think I’m losing my vigor for writing. Quite the opposite, I’m even more excited to share and discuss these simpler abstract thoughts.

The Story

The topic this week is about the relationship between memories and actual history.

Like with most posts, I enjoy sharing where the original thought originated from.

I was scrolling on Twitter, and came across a post referencing The Backyardigans.

Perhaps you like me, experienced the same emotion I had when I saw the Backyardigans, and was reminded of their existence.

Up until that moment, I could not recall the last time I had ever thought about the Backyardigans. Had I never heard of them for the rest of my life, there is a very real possibility that I would have completely forgot about their existence.

To me, The Backyardigans were as a good as a completely fictional group of characters. Yet, this made no sense.

I had grown up seeing commercials for the show, and had even watched a few episodes with a younger cousin. The show clearly existed to me, and more than something that was in passing or easily forgotten.

How did I lose all conscious trace of the Backyardigans?

I understand that our brain can only juggle so many things at once, and it can’t possibly find it necessary to randomly recall and cycle through every halfway memory we’ve ever had. That would be terribly inefficient.

Yet there are some things that really do seem to be completely wiped away. As if the directory erased the instructions to accessing this memory, but the memory still existed in a hidden space.

But if nothing ever triggers the retrieval of that memory, how is it any different that the file being completely deleted?

Imagine if tomorrow, everyone collectively wiped away any mention or reference of the Backyardigans? What if this was done discreetly, but truly leaving no trace?

And then, imagine if no one ever thought to bring them up again, those of us that did come in to contact with the show?

How is this any different than the Backyardigans ever existing in the first place?

We know where our memories lay—inside each and every one of us, in this particular part of the brain.

But where does the collective memory lie? How is it any different than history? Than the past? What can we do to alter all of them?

The Contention

I believe history extends only so far as memories do.

Yes. If tomorrow, the entire human race was wiped out, and no trace was left of our existence, then I believe that is equivalent to us never having existed in the first place.

After all, imagine if an alien race comes upon the ruins of our planet. Whatever natural disaster that wiped us out leaves a completely blank planet, serene and with no intelligent life forms.

Where is the proof we existed? Gone.

In that case, our entire collective history is lost to the future. And only that which is continually visited and revised in the future can be considered real.

This entire topic reminds me of George Orwell’s famed book, 1984. Many of you have read this novel, and if you have not—you really should.

The synopsis is this: the main character, Winston, lives in 1984 Great Britain (called Oceania)—which as a result of a never-ending war has become a dystopian total police state.

Winston’s job is to quite literally re-write history. Winston and his fellow co-workers in the Ministry of Truth re-write news articles, documents, and other historical records in order to help craft the government’s narrative.

Given that thought is so heavily suppressed, people have no choice but to access and therefore believe these government edited accounts when and if they ever desire to learn about the past or present.

This quote encapsulates the futility of it all: “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”

Clearly, the Ministry of Truth is successful in their efforts. The beaten down people of Oceania succumb to the propaganda and there is little mention of any serious resistance.

At one point, one of Winston’s colleagues goes missing—and no one even acknowledges his disappearance, to the point that Winston doubts if he ever existed at all.

Let me contrast this 1984 example with an individual/localized one, so you can see the difference between collective memory wiping and a forgotten past.

I could find and choose a real life example, but let me stick to cultural ones. The Vow (yes that cheesy 2012 movie), is about a woman who forgets her husband after a car accident.

She wakes up in the hospital and views her husband as a complete and utter stranger, and actually believes she is still engaged to her prior boyfriend, and that she hasn’t dropped out of law school.

Obviously, the events of her life have not been altered. She really did leave her previous boyfriend, dropped out of law school, and meet her current husband.

But to her, it is literally as if none of that has ever happened. That massive lapse in memories rewrote her own personal history.

If everyone in her life decided to for some reason go on and accommodate her memory loss state by simply pretending to reverse their own lives to fit in to her timeline, it would be as if her life just had tiny inexplicable gap.

Of course, the whole point of the movie is that her husband fights to get her to fall in love with him again, and although she doesn’t regain her memory fully, there are enough triggers that she settles in to some sense of normalcy.

The distinction between the two examples I’ve given should be obvious. If there exists any trace that can trigger memory recall, or can be pieced together to form a recollection—then the event(s) have not been erased from existence.

However, if there is a mass collective erasure of memories and evidence, those events might as well have not happened.

I can see the clear objections to this: you don’t need memory validation in order to say that something has happened or existed. If there was a some sort of higher order being or omniscient arbiter who kept track of things, they would mark down everything that happened.

But there we go, again—the only way to know if something existed is if someone somewhere still has a memory or archive of it.

Imagine I told you now that you had a dog that was your dearest friend as a child. The dog happened to be a stray dog that simply roamed around your house occasionally, and he only ever interacted with you when no one is around.

No one ever saw this dog, and you never spoke of him. There are no pictures of you two, or the dog by itself—but believe me it happened.

You’d be naturally skeptical, and would probably think I’m making this up. Maybe you’d think about it once or twice, but eventually you’d completely forget that I brought it up and even if it happened (I swear it did!!!!), it would be as if it never.

Now imagine a much grander, society-wide event that was lost to the history books.

Think of the infinite possibilities. I am sure that there are notable events and/or people that have ceased to exist, even though their actions may have affected the present course of history.

You don’t even have to go to the fabled extreme: like El Dorado, Atlantis, etc. There are probably prominent Native Americans that featured heavily in our nation’s founding that are slipping away everyday, if they aren’t already gone to our collective memory.

Face it. Unless you leave a mark on history that stands the test of time, it’s almost as if your life never existed in the first place either.

Take comfort in that.


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