Persistence of memory

Categories: Buddhism, Family
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Published on: October 6, 2011

Emily was interested in amnesia today when I picked her up from school. She got around to it by asking about automobile accidents and brain damage but eventually settled on amnesia; what it is, how you get it, what you forget and for how long. I can’t say I’m an expert on brain damage but we spent the drive to her choir practice discussing memory and it’s loss. ¬†One thing that she asked that particularly stood out was her question of whether you changed who you are if you lost your memory. I don’t remember exactly how the conversation went (it’s like rain on your wedding day) but here’s the gist of it.

We’re always changing. Who I am now, this moment, is slightly different from who I was a moment ago but is quite different from who I was ten, twenty or thirty years ago. We don’t notice the changes because they’re small but they do add up over time.

The other side of that coin, however, is that my memory of who I was yesterday, last week, last month and last year acts as a guide for who I will be tomorrow. I remember being a daddy and an engineer and a Buddhist yesterday so there is a very good chance that tomorrow I will continue to be a daddy and an engineer and a Buddhist.¬†Remembering who I was yesterday, I’m going to get up in the morning and go into where I worked yesterday, life is very much the same. The chance that I’ll get up and go get a job making coffee at Starbucks is pretty slim.

But what if I’d lost my memory and didn’t remember who I was or where I worked? The chance that I would go out and get a job working as a java monkey is going to be a lot higher. I like the way coffee smells and, not knowing I have the skills of an engineer, it might seem like a good thing to do. Without the memory of who I was yesterday there is suddenly a much larger chance that my life is going to take off in a wildly different direction.

But that’s just my job, where I live, what I think my name is. Is that really me? Will I still be grumpy in the morning if I don’t remember being grumpy? I could see her trying to work out what part of who I am was left when my memories of who I was were gone.

The drive ended at that point but I think we’d agreed that I’d still be grumpy in the morning.

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