Societies tend to forget a lot easier than individuals, but this too cannot be forced. Attempts by governments and institutions to make us forget are counterproductive. Issues need to be dealt with and resolved. People need to be honest with themselves and so do societies emerging from conflict.
By Paul Gallagher
Following on from an earlier post on forgiveness I now want to think about forgetting. I feel that this is an exercise in futility on an individual level: that said, it is and should be much easier as a society to forget.
My own individual situation is hard to forget. I was left paralysed after being shot six times. I suffer chronic pain every day. I have issues with my personal care. I need a wheelchair to get around. I can’t forget what happened to me. It is impossible. However, I can live with it. I am not bitter about it. This is just the way I am now and this is the way it is going to be. I don’t dwell on it. I try to tackle it but I cannot just forget about it.
I cannot consign it to oblivion. Nor can those who have lost loved ones. The bereaved find it hard to forget. Bereavement and injury through trauma and violence are imprinted on the memory in a different way to other ‘normal’ memory creation. The brain processes such events in a way that the memories don’t fade. Such memories are relived over and over every day as though they are actually happening in the here and now. The problem is in how we deal with those memories and learn how to cope with them. One cannot undo the event but we can try to incorporate it into our life journey. Suppression, burying and forcing people to forget only make matters worse. It should be left to the individual to decide how to deal with the memories.
Societies tend to forget a lot easier but this too cannot be forced. It takes time to forget. People of my generation and further back remember the big epoch-making events such as Bloody Sunday and Bloody Friday. They are remembered because they are imprinted in the memory as big traumatic events that were different from the humdrum of continuous bombings and killings in our low intensity conflict. Everyone else forgets about the two minute news bulletins that brought us the news of another killing of a civilian, a soldier, a policeman or a paramilitary. It didn’t really register; it was forgotten about.
What does register is being made to forget. It does not work. Attempts by governments and institutions to make us forget about the horrific events are counterproductive. Whitewashes and cover ups do not work. Trying to forget something will have the opposite effect. Issues need to be dealt with and resolved. People need to be honest with themselves and so do societies emerging from conflict. We need to know everything. Niggling doubts play on the mind of the individual as well as societies. Individuals need closure. This will hopefully give societies closure. Only then can our communities really forget.
Paul Gallagher was injured at his home in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in an indiscriminate sectarian gun attack in 1994 in which he was left paralysed and confined to a wheelchair. He is currently the Chairman of Victims and Survivors Trust – a registered charity supporting victims of conflict. He is also studying for a Degree in Psychological Trauma Studies at Queen’s University, Belfast.