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Equilibrium in the digital age: Forgetting how to forget

Here’s something we all know by now: We live in the age of information, the age of constant and varied communication. Our lives are on constant display and at the same time are being held in pixels – easily erased and lost, or easily kept in our pockets. And as the state of this age continues to expand and grow, we are reaching the point of over-saturation. There is so much information and we can have all of it whenever we want. And that usually means we want it right now.

When I was 15 my boyfriend moved to Los Angeles, 500 miles away from our hometown. To supplement our daily phone calls, we wrote each other long love letters, the kind that meander and wander through the psyche, through song and lust and memory and musings of the future, the things that emails and texts rarely do.

When we inevitably broke up, I kept these letters in an old jewelry box under my bed. Like any heartbroken teenage girl, there were times I imagined dramatically throwing these letters away for that final moment of moving on, but in the end it was easy to keep them in a musty box lined with lime green, crinkled velvet. And once time had served to heal the heart, I’d pull the twice-folded notes out and revisit the aesthetic of his curling, black-inked scrawl. Then I’d put the letters away, satisfied to live in the moments of what was, not concerning myself with what became ugly, or what is now. I still have these letters somewhere, and when I come across them through moves or cleaning sprees I am happy to see them again.

Eventually every tear-jerking memory reaches that point of equilibrium. But in the world we live in today, the road there is longer, and perhaps a little rockier. Once that first foray into love was over I no longer had to see him, and our recorded history was small and able to be tucked away.

My most recent break-up, on the other hand, has left me with far more recorded history. And this history is harder to shake, harder to hide beneath the bed and cull through when nostalgia strikes. With all the forms of communication, all the digital folders and files filled with tucked-away pictures and emails and texts that can abruptly draw a memory up from the depths, it is hard to let a person go. It is hard, then, too, to let a person live only in the realm of nostalgia, as something you can visit when you’re ready to remember who the two of you were. Where’s the equilibrium when you never get the chance to step away and move on?

And now their history continues to be written without you. Social media profiles continue to chronicle their lives in a way that is undoubtedly open to you at the strike of a key. Like I’m sure many others do, I often find myself lingering on his Facebook page, peeking through to the small bits of information that are available to me in the “unfriended” state, opening that new picture that must have been taken in another girl’s room. Other times, when I least expect it, I come across his comments beneath the pictures of mutual friends, or he appears in the pictures themselves, and I have to confront that dreaded running-into-the-ex feeling over and over again. These histories can’t be stowed safely away in a box. This moment can’t be planned or handled or controlled like it can in real life.

Laid to rest all those years ago in the box of angsty teenage love letters were all the pictures, too, the faded Polaroids and disposable camera prints. These, too, could be placed in the realm of history where only the desire to remember could resurrect them. But the key is that they could be saved nonetheless, without intrusion. Keeping memories wasn’t dangerous back then. What does one do with all the iPhone photos, the Facebook photos, the iPhoto folders, without deleting them altogether, sending them into oblivion? Is it better to erase them for the sake of self-preservation in the present, or risk the possibility of a memory ambush to save those once-dear images for a later day when it is safe to remember? In moments of anger or sadness it is easier just to press delete, but that doesn’t take care of them all. As much as I don’t want to say it, I can tell you there are still plenty of pictures on my phone and computer that I see on a weekly basis that I just can’t erase.

In this, we are forgetting how to forget, forgetting how to move on and nurture a little nostalgia. It is in nostalgia that these memories become tolerable again, become something to revisit without the shortness of breath, the immediacy of emotion. Each time that Facebook comment reminds us of their presence or we unintentionally resurrect an email conversation, we are dragging our histories into the present moment and elongating the period of grievance.

At a certain point I have to ask how elective this dragging-out period really is. Are we to blame for our inability to move on, or are we just products of our digitally dependent age? For me, I would have to say that I have evolved into an unstable balance of the two — visiting the history simply for the sake of drawing up an emotional response or adding a little drama to my everyday life, but also because I just can’t help myself. After all, that’s who I am – a person with a digital life. Would you expect any less from me?