Inevitably, our elder friends and family joke about how forgetful they have become as they get older. Whether it's a power of suggestion or not, I find myself blaming age for lost thoughts. Yet the more I work on my mental health, I wonder if thoughts are all that helpful.
Certainly, the context of a thought matters. Not remembering to take one's medication is not great. However, not thinking of the 6,974 things that could go wrong if you miss your meds wouldn't be a bad thing. Thoughts can be a source of trouble because we sometimes feel they are facts. For example, I imagine you have stopped reading this already. I believe it. It's a fact, just as plainly as the fact that I am unlovable and a burden. Of course, these are not facts. Logically, I know this. Though, there's still a deep sense, a feeling, that those things are true facts.
Strive for Excellence
When we forget things it feels like a betrayal. Before we were able to do so much. Provide. Succeed. Retire. That cultural message is about getting an education, finding work, creating a family, and retiring after all your hard work. Be productive now and relax later. The cult of busy is something to take pride in and when you take it away in retirement, many people struggle. While I'm not retired, I spend a lot of time shaming myself for forgetfulness. Why would I forget something? What am I doing that is so demanding that would stress me so much to forget? Nothing. I am a loser. While extreme, it's similar to a retired person thinking, "I shouldn't be so forgetful, I don't have as much on my plate as when I was working."
Here I Am Now
Perhaps forgetting is a sign of being in the moment. So often my thoughts are about what's next or past gaffs. "What was I going to do after I got home from our lunch together?" Is that as important as spending time with you? (Okay, sure. Forgetting that I need to take my meds when I get home.) I am suggesting that maybe forgetfulness comes when we can truly relax. Maybe this is why age seems to come with this stigma? Retired folks with less on their plate have less worries plaguing their anxiety? Mortality becomes more real and is a far bigger fear than changing the furnace filter I would think. And thus, many seniors try to share the idea of making our time here on Earth count.
We are fearless in our youth. We don't spend time thinking we could get hit by a bus or fall down an elevator shaft. As we age and slow down, we look back with nostalgia and gratitude. I think I also look back with regret. The regret of things I think I did wrong and my wasted youth. "If only I would have used my time more wisely." Thus, forgetting things now taps into this inner criticism of myself. I can blame the lost thoughts on age, but hidden behind that is a feeling that I didn't do enough when my mind was "sound." Forgetfulness becomes a tool to shame myself for growing old. Guess what? We all age. So get over yourself, Chris.
Am I romanticizing the idea of forgetfulness by thinking it could be a good sign of change? Perhaps. Though, being in the moment seems really important. Trying to remember my grocery list as I sit at a funeral may be escaping the situation. It's a distraction from the emotions brought by grief. Maybe focusing on how forgetful we are as we age is a distraction from the emotions brought up by the realization of our mortality. Better to try and fix the problem of forgetfulness than dwell on the fears of death. Again, when I write "death" I jump to thinking what that would be like for me, rather than feeling the sadness and fear of not existing. How scary that I wouldn't be able to write you anymore, feel my partner's touch, cuddle my dog, eat chocolate, or feel the sun on my skin? It's really scary. It is a pit in the stomach, tension in the jaw, and shallow breath frightening. Rather than letting my eyes well up from sadness, I again focus on the things I haven't done yet. I'm not making enough money. I'm a bad brother, son, husband, and I need to fix that. All these thoughts come at me as a subconscious strategy to avoid those feelings about my coming death.
The next time you forget something, maybe that's alright. It felt important before, but right now it isn't. Accepting that may be part of remembering. Understanding that the thought wasn't a fact and is an opinion is also helpful. "Don't forget to take your meds," is an opinion. Forgetting to take insulin and then having symptoms is a fact. One that will likely remind you to take the meds.
You know what? Forget this entire blog. Age or mental wellness aside, forgetting is not an issue at all. It is the dwelling on the forgetfulness that is a problem. These thoughts that I should remember, or criticisms that being old or forgetful is bad are not helping us remember! They only serve to shame us. Leave the past and the future behind. Feel into the now.