October 06, 2019

Lately I have been thinking through Derek Sivers’ idea (well worth reading) that you ought to write things down because it’s hard to remember how your previous selves felt about the states of your previous worlds:

We so often make big decisions in life based on predictions of how we think we’ll feel in the future, or what we’ll want. Your past self is your best indicator of how you actually felt in similar situations. So it helps to have an accurate picture of your past.

You can’t trust distant memories, but you can trust your daily diary. It’s the best indicator to your future self (and maybe descendants) of what was really going on in your life at this time.

I think that he’s right, in the sense that feelings are ephemeral, and often surprising, when written down and read only a week later.

To this end, I’ve been keeping a log each day of the thing most worrying me on that day. Checking it the next week shows that virtually none of the things I worried would happen were borne out; most are totally irrelevant within a week, which gives some insight into the utility of worrying.

Though of course feelings don’t feel ephemeral at the time. They can dominate experience.

This makes sense, as they probably evolved to provoke some kind of basic action, and are crude tools in this respect for modern life. They are shared at least with other mammals, and the more primitive ones are likely also shared with reptiles.

Maybe some feelings provoke a reaction there and then, and, having served their purpose, are thereby rightly forgotten. Other feelings persist, perhaps because the reaction they were intended to provoke is frustrated in some way, and maybe the duration for which they hang around determines how easy deeply they imprint the mind. A first heartbreak, for example, or a terrible boss. Then the memory remains here and now.

But there may be other reasons that most of our recollection of feelings is unreliable. One, as the Buddhists have long been fond of noting, is that despite its persistent illusion, the self does not itself persist through time.

The other may have to do with memory. If memories are the mental structures left after a process of discarding irrelevant details, as I’ve started to suspect, then emotions (which, as suggested above, are rather better suited for immediate action) are some of the first things to be stripped away.

There seems to be some disconnect here. Sivers’ contention is that it is important to remember how we once felt, since our memory is so bad. But implicit in this thinking is that it matters how we feel. Buddhists, Stoics, and probably CBT would say that feelings have little or no veracity, no meaning in themselves. If that’s true, it would be better to regard them as passing like the weather, and in that sense, maybe not worth remembering.

And yet I can’t shake the feeling that Sivers is right, and that we ought to make some attempt to fight the faultiness of memory on this point. Maybe recording in writing and recalling in reading will ultimately reveal how transient feelings really are.

But maybe building a bastion against time’s erosion, however inevitable, is an act that is in itself worthwhile. One would not refuse to start a project just because that project will not persist for all eternity. Perhaps consciously engaging in long-term thinking, even just on a personal level, is virtuous.

Or maybe even if feelings (and memories of them) are unreliable and crude, they still contain important information. Maybe it is the fact of their tendency toward domination that makes predicting them important.

Bryan Kam

I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter, follow me on Mastodon, or see more here.