Do you ever achieve “Zero” in your email Inbox?
The other day my friend @suzemuse tweeted a picture of her Inbox Zero. My Inbox hasn’t been at zero since the day I received my welcome message, so I had to ask: “You don’t do that by just deleting everything, right?” That would be my method. But no, according to her it’s all about process, respond, archive, delete.
If only our brains worked that way, I thought.
Processing— yes—our brains have that down pretty well. Responding? Our brains might not always do it as quickly, or thoroughly, or as appropriately as we might like, but respond they do. Archiving comes naturally, too. We tuck threads of memories away, and they idle in the background not getting in the way but ready for when we call them up, like memories of our first car, or the phone number for the pizza place, or our wedding anniversaries. (You do have yours archived, right?)
But Delete, now, that’s a tricky one. Sometimes our brains delete things we don’t want to lose, like the password to that website we visit once a year (so . . . many . . . passwords), or our wedding anniversaries. But other memories stubbornly stick around and keep us awake nights when we wish we could wave a magic wand and make them go away.
Or do we?
When I started to think of unpleasant memories I would delete if I could, I found that I didn’t really want to lose them after all. Every time I thought up an unpleasant memory, I quickly thought, “Oh, but if that hadn’t happened, then I wouldn’t have learned . . . (fill in the blank with life-changing lesson)” I could pretend it would be good to forget the time I rolled my car and was charged with careless driving, but I am better driver today because of that event. And I developed sympathy for stressed-out teachers because of the day my high school history teacher lost it and kicked my out of class when I did nothing more than roll my eyes. The events weren’t fun to live through, but I learned from them, and they shaped my future in positive ways.
The delete systems in our brains appear to have evolved to give us our best chance at survival. We remember good things so we repeat them and keep surviving. We remember pain so we avoid it and keep surviving. We forget the mundane because it doesn’t help us live another day or prevent us from living another day.
So the next time you find yourself tossing and turning at night over a memory you wish you could delete, thank your brain for doing its job.