The Art of Forgetting


Sermon #9 (26th January 2014 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)

We hear a lot about remembering in church. In the next twelve minutes or so I’m going to try and redress the balance a bit – and perhaps that’s the key word to bear in mind, BALANCE – by looking at a handful of different ways in which forgetting might be beneficial or even necessary for a well-rounded and  flourishing human life.

Up to a point, forgetting can be good for you intellectually – in terms of learning and creativity; emotionally – in terms of freedom from worry; and spiritually – in terms of personal and social transformation. So I’m going to consider each of those three realms of forgetting in turn.

But first let us acknowledge some of the legitimate reasons why we might be anti-forgetting… and get them out in the open. Firstly, simply, most of our everyday experiences of involuntary forgetting are connected with inconvenience, irritation, and occasionally social embarrassment. We go upstairs to get something and when we get there we can’t remember what it was. We can’t call to mind a scintillating fact at the moment we need it in conversation (or in a pub quiz when we can’t remember the capital of Burkina Faso). We bump into an acquaintance and find that we’ve completely forgotten their name.


Beneath the surface of these everyday irritations, though, perhaps these small moments of forgetfulness provoke discomfort at a deeper level. For starters, these lapses remind us that we humans are fallible. And beyond that, we might associate forgetfulness with our own personal decline – memory loss is something that many of us fear coming upon us in old age – and it might bring to mind painful thoughts of people we know and love who are suffering from dementia and other progressive conditions.

Another reason why we might feel uneasy about forgetting is in relation to certain famous proverbs and sayings that we may have internalised which encapsulate society’s attitudes towards the value of remembering. I’m thinking especially of: ‘those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’. When we think of terrible atrocities and tragedies, we are called both to honour the memory of the victims, and to learn from the mistakes so that it doesn’t happen again.

This may lead us on to another aspect of forgetting, deeper still – our own mortality. One day, we will be gone, and eventually all those who knew us will be gone too. Will we be remembered? The thought of being gone and forgotten is a sobering one.

So forgetting has a lot of negative connotations – and, in many cases, things will, by default, be forgotten unless we as individuals and as a society make a particular effort to remember them – in general it’s remembering we need to work on… but that doesn’t mean that there’s no place for forgetting. As we heard from Oliver Burkeman in the reading that Carol gave earlier, forgetting is a ‘vital complement to remembering’.

I found a very short paper called ‘The Art of Forgetting’ by Elizabeth Vincent, it’s nearly 100 years old and I know absolutely nothing about her but I liked what she had to say so I’m going to share a short excerpt or two. She says:

“To remember rightly and truly – one has to forget. If we actually remembered everything, we should practically remember nothing, because we would be swamped and drowned in a mass of confusing details, and our rebuilding memory would stand hopeless before the task of uniting all these bits into a clear and convincing picture. But if we know how to forget, if we do not cling to facts like a frightened swimmer clings to the pole, but drive with a fine and strong stroke forward into the deep, blue alluring waters to a new and beckoning spiritual shore, then we shall see what we have forgotten coming back to us, clearer and purer, deeper and fuller with meaning, all the incidental details gone, but the essential picture heightened and more ours now than ever before.”  some words from Elizabeth Vincent.

This sets us up very nicely to look at the intellectual benefits of forgetting.

First things first: to state the obvious, you simply can’t remember everything! (or at least most people can’t – there are a few poor souls who seem to be able to remember everything and by all accounts they are tormented by their condition). In the modern world there is ever more information and data coming our way and it is difficult to know how to deal with it without becoming overwhelmed. Often the challenge is to sift this deluge of information for the bits that are worth keeping hold of… there is a lot of ‘noise’ swamping the nuggets and selective forgetting is one way in which we respond. That selection is partly conscious, partly unconscious.

I heard a story on the one of my favourite podcasts, Radiolab, which was the initial inspiration for today’s service. The item was about an avant-garde rock band who were rehearsing a new song. They spent a whole evening practicing it over and over but the drummer just couldn’t get the hang of the rhythm and kept making mistakes here and there. Eventually she gave up, they knocked it on the head for the night, and everybody went to bed. The next day she got up, went straight to the drum kit, and got the rhythm right first time.

I think a few of us here might have had similar experiences where a good night’s sleep has had a seemingly miraculous effect when we are trying to learn something new.

This is a very condensed version of the story and its interpretation but in a nutshell the explanation given was that a key function of sleep is that it enables us to forget. If I’ve understood correctly, slow waves of electrical activity pass over our brain during the night, gently eroding all of our memories, including the things we want to remember, the mistakes we want to forget, and all the incidental things that happened during the day that we have no particular need to recall. When we are trying to learn something, like the drummer learning her rhythm pattern, we tend to reinforce the memory by repetition, so the memory of the thing we are trying to learn survives this process of erosion, whereas the random mistakes we make and the incidental day’s events just fade away. I recommend you go and listen to the excellent Radiolab podcast to hear that for yourself [search online for Radiolab Sleep Deprivation and that should get you the right episode]. 

Another cognitive benefit of forgetting may be in relation to creativity. Holding ideas loosely, thinking fuzzily, may allow you to combine them in new ways. Gaps in our memories may be a blessing as they give us the room to come up with something new. The neurologist Oliver Sacks has written on this. He says:

‘We, as human beings, are landed with memory systems that have fallibilities, frailties, and imperfections – but also great flexibility and creativity…’ [he talks about the tendency to forget where we have picked up ideas, and to assimilate them and treat them as if they are our own, and also about what he calls ‘autoplagiarism’, where our own ideas are forgotten and lie dormant for years before being picked up at a later date as if they were brand new]. He continues: ‘I suspect that such forgettings occur for everyone, and they may be especially common in those who write or paint or compose, for creativity may require such forgettings, in order that one’s memories and ideas can be born again and seen in new contexts and perspectives.’ 

Let’s move on to another realm where forgetting is important. Sometimes there are things we’d like to forget but we find that we can’t stop thinking about them. Are any of you familiar with the little figures on the front of your order of service? These are Guatemalan worry dolls. They were all the rage in the New Age hippy shops I used to hang around as a teenager. If you are troubled by worries then you tell them to a worry doll and place it under your pillow before you go to sleep. The folklore says that the doll takes on your worries, so that you can sleep in peace, and in the morning your worries are gone, forgotten. I guess it’s a pretty much universal experience to have such worries, thoughts, and feelings that we would like a bit of respite from. I know from my own experience that, in times of stress, anxiety, and sadness, all I want to do is have a break from the loop of distressing thoughts in my mind. Sometimes sleep is the only respite, and the first few seconds on waking up are often the only moments of peace in the day before all the unpleasant realities flood back in. And it’s not just the day-to-day worries. I don’t know about you but I seem to keep a mental catalogue of every significantly embarrassing or foolish thing I have ever done. These cringeworthy moments seem to be seared into my memory and I wish they weren’t.

As we heard in the reading by Burkeman earlier, choosing to forget has got a bad name, as there’s a good psychological principle that such memories should generally be brought to light (with professional help if they are particularly serious) and closely examined for what we can learn from them. And in terms of our day-today-worries and stress it might well be argued that rather than trying to forget them we should face them head on and try to tackle our situation in some practical way to change it. But sometimes we just need a break, a bit of guilt-free time out, to enable us to carry on. It’s worth employing some of the tips that Burkeman suggests to forget our worries for a while – substituting the thoughts with something else – or doing some physical activity to put them from our mind. It’s OK to forget, just for a while, and have a rest, as a kindness to ourselves. After a break we might find we are more able to cope with the struggle.

Elizabeth Vincent has something to say about this too. She says:

“To be happy one has to forget. If we were constantly facing the futility of our days, the doom awaiting us, the mistakes we have made, the wrong paths we have taken, the aims we have missed, we could not live another day. But as long as we forget, the bitterness in our heart is charmed away as David charmed away the gloom of Saul with his lute, and once more we look upon life and fate with the trust of a child and believe that what is, is good… Once more we belong to life and life belongs to us. We forget, because we find only in forgetting the possibility to be, to live on.”

And we come to a third realm where forgetting plays a vital role: on the path of personal, social, and spiritual transformation.  Mystics of various traditions often talk of the way of forgetting or unknowing as being a necessary aspect of the journey towards God. In a similar vein, advanced Buddhist meditators talk of forgetting worldly experiences and concepts altogether as they ascend to higher states of consciousness. This sort of personal spiritual transformation is not divorced from the real world, however. True spirituality influences our whole way of living and being.

To make radical personal changes we might just need to forget who we used to be. Both of the poems we heard earlier alluded to the river Lethe from Greek mythology, the river of forgetting in the underworld, in which souls would have to bathe, and thus forget their previous lives, in order to be reborn. The poet C. K. Williams refers to a “looking away that makes possible beginning again”. Forgetting can liberate us from the past which holds us back. And the same goes for radical social change. The activists who change the world are those who are forgetful of received wisdom, social convention, the preconceptions that are quite ingrained into most of us, which condition our outlook on life, and which we may not even be conscious of. Forgetting may bring about about a sort of beginner’s mind that allows us to see things with fresh eyes and new hope.

Evelyn Underhill, who wrote a great deal about mysticism, had this to say:

“The old moralists said that Hope was the virtue which purified the Memory and made it fit for God; and by Memory they meant all our funded experience, that hoarded past which we drag along with us, and which conditions our whole outlook on life. In respect of all this, Hope teaches us the art of wise forgetting; of dropping the superfluous, the outgrown, the trivial. It cleanses the mind from all those half-realities which impede the total concentration of our love and will on God; and lifts up all the rest of our experience into the eternal light… Thus the pain and disappointment, the tragedy and frustration of existence, are transfigured when Hope purifies the mind.”  - some words in praise of wise forgetting from Evelyn Underhill.

So, I’ve attempted to make the case for the value of forgetting in the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual realms, and redress the balance a bit. Of course, remembering is a hugely important aspect of everyday life, and in many ways it is a sacred task ,and an act of love as well. Sometimes it’s absolutely necessary to remember, and work at remembering. But sometimes it’s OK, or even a blessing, to forget. We need to keep the two in balance. To borrow Evelyn Underhill’s turn of phrase, we need to cultivate the art of wise forgetting, in order to learn and create, be liberated from our worries, and ultimately flourish in this life.

May we all become wise in the art of forgetting.



Sermon by Jane Blackall

An audio recording of this sermon is available: