Friday, November 25, 2011

Old Photographs: Or, What Do We Keep, and What Do We Throw Away?

Memories can be hard things to deal with. I don't just mean the kind of emotional reactions they churn up within us but I mean, in the more literal sense, that I often don't know what to do with my memories.

Today I spent a few good hours scanning photographs of my childhood into my computer. I suppose my reasons for doing this lay in the modern mentality that nothing is real until it's been digitized. You may laugh at that, but really I think that with so many years of Facebook and Google, so many of us have been left with the irresistible urge to keep everything that documents our history in a place of quick-access, no matter how mundane. It took a lot of willpower to not scan some of these pictures.

But this is all prologue. What I'm trying to get to is the dilemma I found myself in when I came across a few particular photos that I wasn't expecting. I found one or two from a date with an old girlfriend, one with a friend that I've since fallen out with, and a few prom pictures with an old crush. When I found them, a rush of different things came up. Shame, memories of pain, nostalgia, but also an emotional distance that let me laugh and remember how crazy it all was, and see how far I've come since then.

Part of me says "wow, that was a really formative part of my life." The other part says, "wow, that was a really painful memory and you don't need that anymore." One says, "I want to keep that." The other, "You shouldn't keep that." I want to dwell on that last thought for a moment, focusing on that word: Should. What should we do with our memories? What do we do with the old teady bears, the T-shirts that don't fit anymore that we wouldn't be caught dead in, but loved to death in 1989. What about the photos and memories of past relationships that aren't anymore? (Most of you will latch onto the romantic implications of that word, but I also mean it more broadly.)

Going back to Facebook for a moment, think about the common mentality we have today. Share everything, display everything, keep everything. There are some great benefits elements to all that connectivity. When distance used to cut-off friendships all too soon, or stifle long-developed ones, we can now keep up with each other. We can track down old friends that we never thought we'd see again. Even the fact that I'm posting this on a social networking site is not lost on me. But part of me wonders against it. Is it true that we should remember everything? Are there things we really just should let go of? Should some friendships just grow then let die?

But none of this even answers the first question I asked. It's not so much the question "Should we keep friends forever?" as much as it is "What do we do with the memories of friendships that are gone?" I suppose this is something that people have struggled with far longer than there's been an internet. That's probably why we all have hoarders and pack-rats in our family, who refuse to throw out that dot-matrix computer, because gosh-darn-it, they paid $100 for it and used it for years. I don't think anyone is genuinely attached to the hardware, but more to the memories it holds and what it says about the owner.

I suppose it comes down to one set of questions, which I'll leave open-ended: Is it possible to keep the memories of everything, good and bad? Does that enrich us, or weigh us down?

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