January 6, 2011

Remembering our way to the future


There was a very interesting segment on the CBS  program "Sixty Minutes" recently when viewers were introduced to a handful of people who could literally remember every day of their lives. If they were asked to remember a day like July 23rd 2006, for instance, they could tell you whether it was a Tuesday or a Friday, whether it rained that day, who they talked to, what they had for lunch and so forth. 

Of course this is hard to verify, so scientific investigators asked about things they remembered on dates that can be historically documented and in every case the people with this incredible and somewhat frightening ability could recall that day instantly and exactly.

When asked how they could do this, they said they didn't know. Just ask them about a day they'd lived through some years ago and suddenly they "saw" that day and re-experienced it. They didn't particularly want to, but they did. Some of the instantly remembered days made them feel whatever emotion they had felt that day--sadness or joy. Subsequent MRI examinations revealed that there were some differences in the brains of these people and the rest of us.

Memory is a mysterious thing and losing it can be devastating both for individual people and for societies. I've been thinking of this, now that we are approaching the end of another year, because this is when the media attempts to sum up the year, decide what was most important, what good and bad things happened, to record it for posterity. I suppose that's inevitable and it does help fill pages in newspapers and magazines and many hours on television and radio. The trouble is, I'm not sure we are all remembering the same things in the same way.

For instance, some of us may remember that the last Legislature succeeded in balancing  the budget but others of us will remember that to do so they had to use federal stimulus funds and cut state aid to public schools. Some of us may remember all the fun and profit the annual Sturgis Rally brought to the Hills, while others of us remember the noise and inconvenience. While some people are remembering that we are assured the recession hasn't hit South Dakota as hard as other states and that we have a good economic climate here, others may remember that eight of the poorest ten counties in the United States are within our borders.

In other words, I tend to think we often remember what we want to remember and forget things we don't want to pay attention to. Maybe that's the only way we can function much of the time or we'd get bogged down in regret and uncertainty.

Yet, as we approach another New Year, I hope that those who hold political and economic power in South Dakota and the United States do not suffer loss of memory. I hope they pause to reflect on some of the mistakes that have been made in the last decade. We wouldn't be in an economic mess and fighting two wars (not counting excursions into Yemen and Pakistan) if some mistakes hadn't been made along the way. Our highways wouldn't be deteriorating, our schools struggling, our prisons overcrowded, if we hadn't made some pretty bad decisions over the years. Remembering and recognizing mistakes is the first step toward making better decisions in the future.

Even if we all could remember every day of our lives, I'm not sure that this would help us  achieve a more sane and benevolent society, because we would still be filtering reality through our own eyes, our own beliefs, fears, ambitions. People do remember things differently which is why there are conflicting reports from eye witnesses and arguments at family reunions.

Yet we should do our best to try to remember history and see it clearly. As the saying goes, those who do not remember history are condemned to repeat it.

Happy New Year. 

Lorraine Collins is a writer who lives in Spearfish. She can be reached at collins1@rushmore.com.

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