Friends of the Family

Chances are good you won’t remember reading this article.

What is the number one reason people give for not doing what they said they were going to do? It’s not illness, accident, laziness, lying, a faulty conscience or a misunderstanding.

It’s amnesia. It’s “I forgot.”

Fill in the blank. “I forgot to … stop at the store on my way home from work … call the insurance company … keep the doctor’s appointment … enroll the kids in soccer … bring home my homework … practice the trumpet … pay the Visa bill.”

Many of us seem to be unwitting victims in the plot of a grade B science fiction movie in which alien beings from another world slowly and secretly drain our brains of vital memory fluid so that they can turn the human race into subservient, mindless drones.

Is “I forgot” a legitimate reason for being let off the hook? Or is it an excuse?

The “I” in “who I am” is made up of two major parts: my convictions and my memory. My convictions are what I stand for; my memory is the summary of all of my life experiences and relationships.

That is why Alzheimer’s disease, other forms of dementia and brain injury are so horrifying. They rob individuals of a huge portion of their identity. They become almost different people to us. We are strangely, sadly, no longer able to connect to them as we did.

After we rule out legitimate, neurological reasons for forgetfulness, such as dementia and Attention Deficit Disorder, what is causing the epidemic of amnesia? Is it stress? Multi-tasking? Too much sugar? Too little potassium? Alcohol? Plasma TVs? Aliens from another planet?

Perhaps we need to look no further than the pervasive human tendency to avoid things we don’t like. We don’t want to face difficult people and stressful situations. We don’t want to feel the emotional discomfort. It’s not that we make a conscious decision to forget. We just stop trying that hard to remember. We let the uncomfortable meeting or dreaded appointment slip away into the back file of the mind labeled “sweet oblivion.”

In this version of our science fiction flick, we change the plot. We not only give in to the memory-sucking invaders from another galaxy, we make a deal with them to keep it up. We thank them for relieving us of the burden of remembering.

And we thank them for helping us forget about those who are on the receiving end of our memory loss, e.g., the children waiting to be picked up at 8 o’clock Saturday morning for the trip to Six Flags, the ex-spouse waiting for the child support check.

What happens to the people on the receiving end of our convenient amnesia? What emotional scar does our forgetting leave on others?

When a child says “Daddy forgot to send me a present on my birthday” or “Mom forgot to pick me up after school,” what is the impact? How does repeated “forgetting” affect the emotional security and developing identity of a child? Forgetting, through active avoidance or passive neglect, is a way of saying that others don’t count.

Human relationships are built on contracts. A contract is a written or implied promise to do what I committed to do. When we keep contracts, we weave the fabric of society. We send the message to our children, friends, family and even strangers that they can count on us. Children receive the message that they count. Remembering to be available to our children builds their identity. They come to believe that they are valuable enough to be remembered.

So if forgetting destroys connections, remembering restores and sustains them. Remembering means moving out of our self-absorbed comfort level to take the time and make the effort to: send a card, make a call, visit a lonely neighbor, attend a retirement party, go to a funeral home, go to a nephew’s piano recital, watch a daughter’s game.

Remembering is the key to the social contract. And we need others to help us remember. That is why we get together to celebrate national holidays, religious feast days, birthdays, wedding anniversaries, and baptisms. We commemorate, or “remember together,” events that have meaning in our lives.

So, kids, next time when you’re at a family picnic listening to your folks, aunts, uncles, and grandparents laugh about all their goofy antics from days gone by, you may suspect that some of the details sound a little suspicious, a little exaggerated perhaps. But someday you may be telling your kids about this very picnic. And if you can’t quite remember all of the details, so what? It was always about the connections anyway.

(Pankratz is a marriage and family therapist at Catholic Charities Milwaukee regional office.)