I retired from my permanent academic job some two years ago and so it is that the last student cohort that I admitted is now on the verge of departure. This milestone represents a final severing of links with this part of my past: the campus upon which I worked has closed, most of my former colleagues have moved on and the last of my former students is about to graduate. The circumstances of my departure were unhappy: it’s hard to feel good at the sight of everything that one has created over the last years being swept aside and discarded by a management that has no meaningful concern for academic or personal matters. Just don’t get me started………. ! However, that’s how things were and it would be untrue if I were to say that I hadn’t been left with a persistent and unpleasant taste in my mouth as a result.
There comes a time, however, when one has somehow to move on and, for me, that time has come. I visited their last Degree Show yesterday and felt oddly disconnected from both the work and its creators: a sign, perhaps, that the wrench of departure had largely dissipated and that, knowingly or not, I had come to accept the reality and immutability of my personal and professional history. Change happens, inexorably and irreversibly and no amount of nostalgia nor supply of “if onlies” will serve to stem its flow. Any sense of rejection and despair at the old must move over to make way for the new, whatever it may bring. This is a clumsy way of saying that one must choose to relinquish the memories of what has gone before if one is to be able to assimilate those of what is to come. We have, it seems, a finite emotional carrying capacity and may be thankful that the process seems to be largely automatic save perhaps in cases of extreme trauma.
But how does this self-regulation work? How do we know – subconsciously or otherwise – that we are reaching capacity and that, like an email mailbox, new things will be bounced back to source if space isn’t made by deleting old stuff? It seems almost as if each individual is able to sense their situation and apply an internal mechanism that clears old issues away to make space available for new ones. Fashionably, we refer to this as “achieving closure” but this, I think, confers too much credit upon our conscious selves for competent self-management. The process is rarely so clear cut or so deliberate nor, even, are we often aware of it any more than we are aware of the relief of a headache by an aspirin – we suddenly notice the absence of pain rather than noticing the moment of its cessation.
As far as I know, there’s nothing in neuroanatomy that allows us to measure emotional storage capacity although common sense suggests that it can’t be infinite. Against this we must put the performance of memory savants whose recall (and hence, one assumes) capacity appears huge compared to most of us. Is it even possible to conceive of a means of measurement when science seems to broadly suggest that memories are diffusely located or possibly not located at all in a physical sense. If this is so, we might postulate that memory is an emergent property of the system that is run on the hardware of our brains. On the face of things, a reasonable enough analogy perhaps but, if it’s a real one, then memory cannot logically be emergent since it has to be inputted into the sytem in order to be recalled at a later date.
Given that we know so little that is certain about these processes, it seems paradoxical that we still feel so strongly the imperative to delete information in the form of emotional memories in order to make way for new ones. After all, this doesn’t apply to information in general: old facts are not deleted to be replaced by new ones and the sum total of our knowledge increases over our lifetimes. Why should it be different for non-factual memory?
In any event, despite being unable to unravel the mechanism by which this all happens, I remain conscious of its reality and neccessity. And yes, whatever I’ve said in the past, it’s now time to move on.