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Wednesday, 14 December 2016

The Good Ol’ Days

It’s likely, in this psychologically-literate age, that most people know about the “rosy-retrospection bias, if not by name than by some colloquial equivalent. It is the tendency to remember past events with more fondness than they deserve. For example: I have a memory of playing soccer in the rain with my dad and older brother when I was around seven or eight. I was certainly miserable and cold—but what good times! (To be clear, this is not nostalgia but something more basic; nostalgia, let’s say, is when a person wilfully embraces the rosy-retrospection bias.)

Now, is this only a mis-remembering, or is Father Time trying to teach us an important lesson? Recall a memory—the more distant and the more mundane the better for this experiment. I have recalled a time, some six years ago, when I worked at an IGA supermarket as a shelf-stocker. Every Saturday morning I woke up at 5:50am in order to arrive at work at 6:00am. The same ten pop songs harassed my day, and my lunch break was long enough to read perhaps six or seven half-absorbed pages from a novel. I was miserable. Only, in my memory, I—well, I just am. I don’t feel any of those little ego-caused feelings of impatience, worry, or annoyance that would have typified my moment-by-moment consciousness in those days at IGA.  

Your turn. In your memory, are you vexed, self-conscious, embarrassed? Perhaps you are able to surmise such feelings, but does the memory itself give them to you? Is there, waiting for you in your past, any angst for the future, any self-esteem issues, any regret? Or are you, like me, just there, facing shelves in the supermarket, an ego-less thing gliding through time and collecting experience?

It was in Schopenhauer’s treatise The World as Will and Representation that I first encountered this strange observation. It is, in a sense, the “rosy-retrospection bias” that psychologists have observed, but Schopenhauer thinks about it differently. Our memories, he writes, seem to occur by means of a “will-less perception,” and it is that which “spreads so wonderful a charm over the past”:

“For by our conjuring up in our minds days long past spent in a distant place, it is only the objects recalled by our imagination, not the subject of will, that carried around its incurable sorrows with it just as much then as it does now. But these are forgotten, because since then they have frequently made way for others. Now in what is remembered, objective perception is just as effective as it would be in what is present, if we allowed it to have influence over us, if, free from will, we surrendered ourselves to it. Hence it happens that, especially when we are more than usually disturbed by some want, the sudden recollection of past and distant scenes flits across our minds like a lost paradise. The imagination recalls merely what was objective, not what was individually subjective... We are thus able to produce the illusion that only those objects are present, not we ourselves.”

In other words, memory gives us an idea of what it would be like to exist without will—by which Schopenhauer means that aspect of our subjectivity we call ego. You know ego. It’s that servant of ours who, in his overzealous performance of his duty, leads us not just to keep food in the fridge and watch out for oncoming vehicles, but (alas) to bite our nails over promotions and glance worriedly in mirrors. Schopenhauer’s point is that ego doesn’t live well in memory; the atmosphere is toxic to its kind.

Could it be that Time, by removing our ego from our experiences and leaving these traces we call memories, is giving us a hint at how it is done?

Try another memory. Are you wanting, worrying, wasting time—or are you simply existing? Is your experienced characterized by what is subjective—a desire, say, or distaste, or anger? Or is it characterized by something else, something simpler, something more essential to who you are? Can you feel now, perhaps, that thing you could not feel at the time, that thing that you crave in the present, that thing that is very much like... happiness? And is it possible that this is not a deception, not a mis-remembering, but something in a certain sense actually truer (gasp) than the way you experienced the memory when you were in it?

This is why the metaphysician in me cannot abide the psychologist’s glib “rosy-retrospection bias.” For if something is falsified in memory, something is also clarified. Something is given for our use—a hint, if you will, on how to achieve detachment from petty willing. For isn’t it the case that when we immerse ourselves in times gone by, in our own personal version of what the Romans called the memoria praeteritorum bonorum (The memory of the good pasts), that there is a part of us that wonders: why can’t all of life be like this? To experience life as we experience a memory—that, it seems to me, would be a thing like contentment.

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