by Michael McGinnis
It can happen to me anywhere, but most often in Whitehorse. Someone approaches me on the sidewalk, and offers a friendly greeting. Usually I recognize the person, but sometimes my memory fails me and I haven't any idea who it is. I start sorting through people I know — if I am lucky I recall the person and can then nonchalantly pretend that I knew who it was all along. Otherwise, more than likely I will remain mystified in the few moments we exchange pleasantries on the street. Memory is supposed to be able to tie the various parts of your life together, but apparently some parts of my life are inaccessible from that sidewalk in Whitehorse. It is some consolation that those people whose names or faces I can't recall are generally pleased to see me: at least whatever connection I have with them is pleasant and positive!
Memory helps organize the events of life in a logical sequence, and the thousands of basic personal facts which allow us to feel that our personality extends through time. For most people memory is adequate but hardly spectacular. I can recall what I had for dinner last night, but not a week ago or a month ago. I can't count on memory to reliably supply experiences necessary for learning.
Yet I find that life brings to me the experiences that I need, when I need them, if I am able to keep my eyes open enough to recognize them. When I planned to write about memory, I knew I wanted to distinguish between memory and self-knowing in guiding our lives. I needed to write about an event that showed that memory was not as reliable as understanding your own character in living your life successfully. So I was pleased when this happened:
A couple of days ago I received a phone call to congratulate me for winning a contest! I have only used one exclamation mark, but when the man on the phone congratulated me, he used about three!!! Apparently I had won one of three prizes: cash, a trip or a vehicle. He started to tell me more... but I interrupted him. "I don't remember entering any contest. When was this?" He responded that the contest was three or four months ago, whether I remembered or not. He was quite right that I might not have recalled entering a contest four months ago. But he didn't know that I believe in "TANSTAAFL" which means There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch. I don't enter draws or buy lottery tickets.
I hung up on the man because I knew my own nature, even if I didn't have memory of whether I had entered a contest months ago, or not. Memory is too variable and fragmentary to trust for complete understanding of our lives. Only our patient observation and realization of our true natures, beyond what we happen to recall, matters. Our characters are molded by the cumulative sum of the tiniest events over many lifetimes — whether recalled or not — and are a better indicator of our achievements than our memories are.