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Freshman year, I met someone for the first time. I met the same guy for the first time again a few months later. And then I met him for the first time, a third time. And then a fourth. And whenever I inevitably cross paths with him next, I will likely meet him for the fifth first time.
Our bizarre reintroduction always follows the same script. He asks me my name and where I’m from. Out of obligation, I return the questions even though I already know his answers. We say nice to meet you. We smile as if we’ve achieved human connection. We go our separate ways.
His blank expression almost makes the whole lapse-in-memory act convincing, though some glimmer behind his eyes tells me that his forgetfulness is pretty deliberate. But I choose to play along each time because truthfully it’s too much time and effort to engage with senselessness.
I can’t take it personally. This guy is hardly the only one with selective memory, and I can’t say I’ve never exhibited it before either. We all choose to forget. Collectively, in fact, we’ve achieved the impressive feat of virtually erasing the past 18 months of reality. Dining halls reverberating with laughter and conversation, packed lecture halls alive with the energy of frenzied note-taking, and the deafening, sticky-floored, poorly-ventilated revelry of contraband dorm parties have expedited the fading of the silent — memories of loss, malaise, and solitary weariness.
Through a strangely intentional memory loss we’ve been able to snuggle back into the grooves of Harvard as it always was — complete absorption into academic intensity, extracurricular aspiration, social competition, and the unceasing buzz of success in progress.
There is something uniquely Harvard, in fact, about turning the passive into the active. We capitalize on forgetfulness to maximize efficiency. Forgetting becomes a useful tool for neatly discarding whatever we deem unnecessary, especially the things that are hard to remember; not because we can’t recall them but because we don’t want to. We choose to forget to save more time to be busy, and to save ourselves from dealing with whatever lies beyond an introduction.
This method of mental prioritization manifests itself weirdly. We “forget” to say hi to people we definitely know. “Forget” to admit that we already know the person we’re meeting regardless of the fact that we follow each other on Instagram. “Forget” to ever again acknowledge the existence of a past hook-up. “Forget” to maintain a friendship that was once quite close, but has now become inconvenient or simply obsolete. In common and uneasy situations like these, we opt out of engagement, channel the thousand-yard stare, and let the memories slip.
Because remembering, after all, is effort. We’re busy people who take pride in conflating bloated Google calendars with self-importance. To recall is to sacrifice valuable mental real estate of which not everyone is worthy. Remembering people and stories and problems takes time we think we don’t have. And sometimes remembering can be nauseatingly risky. To let people in runs the risk of psychological investment. What if they don’t say hi back? If they think you’re an Instagram stalker? If you overinterpreted a relationship? Or, worst of all, what if they realize that you actually had the time to remember them?
The intensity and seriousness with which we perpetuate this all too prevalent behavior are ridiculous, primarily because we don’t forget. We’re at Harvard because we’re good at remembering. Fascinating things. Complex things. And given just how alert and conscientious we are about dynamics within our bubble, sudden memory loss seems doubtful. But what’s even more ridiculous is that in eschewing excess information — in boiling down our experience to the strictly essential, rushing to discard all the rest, all to save some time and space — we aren’t really left with much at all.
Certainly, that guy I know isn’t saving much time by hearing my life story on repeat, just as that single syllable greeting we’re so hesitant to dole out won’t make us late for class. So this gesture of forgetting must come down to some vague sense of self-worth or self-preservation being satisfaction enough for us. But in trying to save time, face, or energy, we’re only expending it.
Serena G. Pellegrino ’24, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Lowell House.
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