When I try to convince doubters that ordinary memories are actually amazing, I use examples like:
- baseball nuts who can remember hundreds of games
movie buffs who can quote way too many scenes
manic fans who know the words to every song
But you can also detect an underlying irony. Though I celebrate these feats, I also imply that they suggest a certain mental imbalance. I distance myself. Enthusiasm is embarrassing.
Or is it?
When we let enthusiasm embarrass us, we cripple our memories. Actually, we cripple our lives.
We can’t live without loving something, whether we’re washing the wounds of the homeless or staying up late binging on Netflix. So why are we so easily embarrassed? Why do I turn down my (obscure) music at a stoplight, even though I’m surrounded by strangers?
It would be easy to insert an undigested chunk of “Be Yourself” sermonizing here (thus demonstrating my excellent memory for 1980s television). But the truth is more complicated.
We want to share our enthusiasms. Whether you consider this a herd instinct or the impulse to love (or both), the desire to share our enthusiasms is basic to being human.
For most of human history, people lived in tribes and villages. Chesterton once said that a single modern man carries more conflicting thoughts within him than an entire ancient tribe. (At least, I think he did. I can’t remember where.)
Modern civilization, especially in America, is a unique collision of both extreme isolation and extreme freedom to collect your personal smorgasboard of subcultures. You can spend hours a day in passionate online arguments about topics that would humiliate you at a block party.
Actually, do people still have block parties? What do they talk about? It takes a hurricane to get us to talk about the weather.
I’m generalizing, of course. My wife’s parents could get upended in a snow drift, and they would still start a pleasant conversation with the tow guy. Even more dramatically, they’ve been known to speak at length with passing dogwalkers.
However, even then, we rarely find out that the dogwalker is obsessed with film photography or gingerbread sculpture or learning Spanish or memorizing entire books of the Bible.
It takes a special kind of person to share an enthusiasm before they’re sure that the whole room feels the same way. Most of us would much rather be thought boring than weird. Boring people get invited back. (Or do they?)
When we make a habit of smothering our enthusiasm, we can’t expect to summon it so easily on command. Inevitably, we question it ourselves. We are houses divided.
And then we wonder why we forget things.
I’m slowly becoming convinced that memory has much more to do with moods than mnemonics. Yes, we can learn to improve our concentration, our perception, and our techniques. It takes practice to see clearly.
But perfecting memory techniques is like adding features to your car. Sure, they’re great. But at the end of the day, are you driving your car — or pushing it?
Enthusiasm should be the engine that drives our growing memory. What we love, we think about. And talk about.
It’s hard to love on your own. If you’re learning in isolation, the best way to improve your memory might be to find a kindred spirit to talk with. Join a forum. Go to a conference. Start a club. You might even risk mentioning it to your “normal” friends.
Open the windows and let in the sun, before your enthusiasm quietly withers.
What do you think? Do you get a chance to talk about your hobbies and passions? Or do you usually worry that your favorite topics would humiliate you in real life?