The Fine Art of Forgetting

Scarcity is the foundation of survival, and humans are experts at finding ways to minimize it. From hoarding resources to abandoning relationships in a pinch, we all have our tricks for avoiding needing more than what we already own. However, when you’re always on high alert for danger or opportunities past their expiration date, your brain can become fatigued and numb just like physical muscles would if they were overworked too much. This has been scientifically proven time and time again with studies about how people who hoard images decrease neural activity in the portion of the brain responsible for emotional processing and empathy; that’s why there’s something called “image-hoarders.”

The “fine art of forgetting” is a book that discusses the power and importance of forgetting. The author, David Foster Wallace, discusses how humans are able to forget and move on from painful memories.


Editor’s note: Our podcast this week on the advantages of forgetting reminded us of this piece from William George Jordan’s The Crown of Individuality (released 1909) – a more philosophic perspective on the issue. We strongly suggest picking up a copy of The Secrets to Power, Mastery, and Truth: The Best of William George Jordan, an anthology of his writings that we gathered and edited, if you want to learn more about WGJ. While the sample below was wonderful, it didn’t make the final cut for that book, so you can imagine how fantastic the picks that did are!

One of the wonderful skills of living at our best is forgetting. It isn’t the stage of non-remembering when a name, a date, or a fact can’t prevent itself from sinking deep into memory’s abyss of forgetfulness. Character asserting itself—not mind losing itself—is what fine forgetting entails. It’s wisdom’s blue pencil, removing needless words from the book of our lives. Individual kingship determines which ideas are allowed to live in its domain. It is the soul’s act of exclusion, ejecting the undeserving and unpleasant. “The actual trick of editing is knowing what to toss in the wastebasket,” a renowned editor once stated. The soul’s place for letting go of abandoned ideas, dismal memories, mean goals, wrong standards, and poor ideals is forgetting.

All mental and moral virtues, vices, and traits may be characterized in terms of forgetting or remembering. Selfishness is the over-remembering of oneself at the expense of others. Worry is the incapacity to forget about problems that may or may not occur. Honor is defined by high standards shown through actions. Anger is the result of an overheated memory exploding. Forgiveness is the amnesia of a harm by the heart. Ingratitude is the amnesia of a kindness by the heart. Habit is the recollection of actions that makes them simpler to repeat. Mercy is a recollection of human frailty that tempers justice. Envy is the forgetting of one’s own things in favor of obsessing over the goods of others. Influence is defined as one person’s remembered actions motivating the actions of others. Patience entails forgetting about little irritations along the route and focusing one’s thoughts on the objective. Love is the fondest memories of one’s heart enshrined in another’s heart.

Learning how to forget and forgetting what to forget are two different aspects of forgetting as a fine art. The heart’s eclipse of a memory is forgetting. “Oh, just forget it all,” it’s so simple to say casually to someone suffering from memory loss. Those of us who have fought on the quiet battlefield of the spirit honestly and fiercely know that forgetting is never easy. There would be no honor, guts, or strength in conquering anything if it were simple. Those who tell you moral fights are simple either have no idea what they’re talking about, don’t care, or are going to tell you they have an appointment and must say “goodbye.” It’s a tough battle, but we can prevail in the end.


It’s very simple to keep the public from knowing our grief or struggle by masking our sadness with a grin and seeming to forget; yet, this is not true forgetfulness. It is most difficult for the most powerful spirits to forget. It’s strange how trained forgetfulness works. We cannot forget by attempting to forget intensely—doing so just deepens and revitalizes the memories.

True forgetting entails a finer memory; it entails the replacement of one memory with a stronger, antidotal one. It entails focusing on the second phase to the point that the first is diminished, neutralized, and faded away, much like a well-treated ink stain. It’s like pulling a weed out of your mind’s garden and replacing it with a vibrant, hardy flower. It involves the development of new interests, relationships, and activities. Time is quite beneficial, but it is particularly so when we work along with her.

We will discreetly develop greater pressure reserve capacity for our own eventual demands if we learn to forget intelligently and unselfishly in the trifles of our everyday existence with others. Let us forget the thorns of everyday life in order to remember the flowers of its possibilities; let us forget the things that hurt in order to remember the unnoticed reasons for gratitude; let us forget the weaknesses of people around us in order to find where they are strong. Let us forget our disappointments in the bravery of fresh resolve; let us forget the little wrongs we have received from our friend in living anew in the recollection of his numerous kindnesses; let us forget the things that depress in focusing on the things that uplift. The effort at—fine justice is fine forgetfulness. It entails living aggressively on the high plains of truth and light.

He who has become harsh, egotistical, intolerant, and critical as a result of his success, and who has little tolerance with others who have not, should take a break from his labor of hanging fresh medals on his chest of self-approval. He should forget his unseemly conceit by remembering his own difficult battles and the role that luck, patronage, favor, or even dubious cunning played in his success. Then he can readily lend the helpful hand he is now withholding.

We often allow a past deed to taint our current existence: we remember when we should forget. Things done in youth, in periods of irrationality, deeds committed many years ago have left vivid scars in our minds, that sting and canker, that discourage and deaden purpose, impair our moral vigor, blur our mental vision, and dull our energy. We should let the dead of the past to be buried. We should remove them out of our lives and minds permanently. Let us consider the deeds of someone else—a lesser self that is now dead, not the self that exists today, the one we are trying to make finer and better—if we have made all feasible reparations. Let us make our new self more than a relic of a bygone era. Allow it to serve as a prophetic tablet for the bigger self that we are developing.


Only remember and consider previous foolishness, errors, sin, and grief for as long as it takes to heal, atone, and prevent them. Then, in the soul’s focus on the new, fresh, clean days for higher, truer life, forget the sorrow, shame, wrong, and failure of yesterdays, making each new today simply the precursor to a new, better tomorrow.


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