In our closest relationships, attentiveness and memory are key…but forgetting has benefits too.

The venerable Alexander Pope rightfully declared that “To err is human; to forgive, divine.”So I hope he’ll forgive me for offering you my own version of his famous line: that is, “To err is human; to forget, divine.” In fact, I believe the art of forgetfulness is as important as it is underrated.

By “forgetfulness”, I don’t mean everyday absent-mindedness. Forgetting your keys or your wedding anniversary isn’t art: it’s a pain in the backside. Rather, I’m referring to a special kind of forgetting that has proved an essential tool for harmony in my closest relationships: deliberate forgetting.

I learned the art of deliberate forgetting from Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. (I’ll grab relationship advice wherever I can find it.) In Men in Black, Will and Tommy Lee, as you may recall, forestall the inconceivable planetary chaos that would ensue if we all knew the truth that aliens exist among us. Their tool of choice is an “electro bio-mechanical neural transmitting zero synapse repositioner”, more soberly known as a neuralyzer.

The power of the neuralyzer

This silvery, cigar-shaped, pen-sized gadget emits a flash of white light, wiping the memories of all those present not equipped with killer shades. However, a neuralyzer erases only memories of aliens, leaving people looking dazed and goofy but still remembering essential information like their name, their mother tongue, and how to butter a piece of toast. This smart-missile selectivity gives the neuralyzer its power as a relationship tool.

I have a deluxe-model neuralyzer with an invisibility feature. It lives undetected in my pocket at all times. Unlike the men in black, though, I would never use my neuralyzer on a stranger. Nor would I use it on a superior or a colleague, and probably not even a close friend. This technique is best for your very closest relationships: your lover, partner, or spouse, or your child. And if you are a wise child, you might use it on your parents. These are the people to whom you sometimes inadvertently reveal your inner alien.

Deliberate forgetting in action

I sent this script to my son, wondering if it conveyed the feel of our past neuralyzing exchanges. He gave it the thumbs up, then added, “I’m mean you’re not Aaron Sorkin but it works for the purpose.” Thus humbled, I present my example of deliberate forgetting, which we called a “do-over”:

[I hear the kitchen door open downstairs. My teenaged daughter has arrived home from school. I come down to greet her.]

Me: [Secretly wondering if he got his paper done before the 2 PM deadline] “How was your day? Did you manage to get that paper done before the 2 PM deadline?”
Him: [Raising his voice] “Leave me alone!”
Me: [Defensively] “I just asked how your day went!”
Him: “Leave me alone!”

[I beat a hasty exit. In the living room, I take a breath and remember the neuralyzer in my pocket. I go back in the kitchen.]

Me: Hey sweetie, can we do this over?
Him: [Looking up, a bit wary] Well, OK, I guess.
Me: Want to go back out?
Him: OK.
Me: OK, neuralyzing…

[We each raise our imaginary neuralyzers and press the buttons with our thumbs. He puts his backpack on and goes back out the door. He comes in again.]

Me: [No agenda this time] Hey, sweetie! You’re home. How are you?
Him [Smiling a small smile] Sorry I blew up Mom. I had a really bad day today.
Me: Oh. I’m sorry. Did something happen?
Him: Mrs. Sendel refused to let me turn in my paper without taking a letter grade off. I was only an hour late! But I wish you wouldn’t ask me about that stuff.
Me: Yes, I get it that that must be annoying. It’s your business.
Him: Yeah. And I found out Brittany told everyone it was my fault that Sam didn’t get to go to the Halloween party, because his parents grounded him.
Me: Oh, yeah. He was the one you had to report because he was bullying you in the cafeteria?
Him: Yeah.
Me: Yeah, that’s a tough day. I’m sorry. [Long pause.] Can I make you a snack or something?
Him: Yes, can I have some tea?
Me: Sure.

6 benefits of forgetting (on purpose)

As you can see, deliberate forgetting is simple. You simply ask for a “do-over”, neuralyze each other, then try again.

Even though this example is imaginary, I get a breath of relief reading it. How wonderful to know we wield the power to shift a painful interaction, and to do it on the spot.  Here are just a few of the benefits of deliberate forgetting:

1—You exercise your freedom of choice. This freedom is entirely in our power at every moment—even in the most terrible circumstances, as Viktor Frankl describes in Man’s Search for Meaning:

We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any give set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way…It is this spiritual freedom—which cannot be taken away—that makes life meaningful and purposeful. 

And in the less dramatic but far more frequent occasions when we accidentally bruise the people we love the most, the neuralyzer is a fun way to remember this power we possess.

2—Your companion—or child, parent, partner—gets to exercise their freedom of choice. They can even refuse the “do-over” altogether. In my experience, refusal is the exception. But you must be ready to accept a “no” if you hear one.

Otherwise, your invitation to neuralyze each other turns into a demand. And most of us will refuse to do things we’d otherwise gladly do, if we sense a demand from the other person. So, to be clear: the option of neuralyzing won’t work unless it’s just that—an option. 

3— By deciding to neuralyze each other, the two of you are engaging in a mutual agreement. Mutual agreements create a powerful container of good will and safety for any potentially conflictual discussion.

For example, my partner and I have a mutual agreement for tough topics. Either of us can take a break at any time, but the one taking the break lets the other know when they’ll check back in about continuing the conversation. This shared understanding creates safety. Deliberate forgetting has the same effect.

4—When you offer a “do-over”, you are “going first”. You put yourself in a powerfully vulnerable position. It is powerful, because you are taking the initiative to shift the energy of the encounter. And it is vulnerable because you are inviting the other person to join you, even though you can’t control how they respond.

Your companion might reject your offer. But chances are, they will say yes: powerful vulnerability is hard to resist.  And because you have each willingly joined the game, neuralyzing has a high rate of success. We humans are powerful when we willingly collaborate.

5—As a sensitive person, I find that a neuralyzing “do-over” directly counters my tendency to run away, ruminate, and build up the incident in my mind. Instead of prolonging the incident, I “take the bandaid off” in one mercifully brief rip. I am implicitly admitting I could have done better.  My ego hurts, but it’s over quickly. Again, this is hard for the other person to resist.

6—Last, but emphatically not least, when you propose to neuralyze each other, you enter the generous realm of humor. How can you not smile, thinking of the world of Men in Black, with its google-eyed aliens, black suits, and sunglasses? And once you’ve smiled, it’s a lot harder to hold onto irritation.

Deliberate forgetting = love in action

When we offer each other a do-over in this way, we can transform our relationship in the moment. And we strengthen our spiritual muscle of free will. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that you employ the strategy of deliberate forgetting when major conflicts are at stake. Of course, these need to be talked over and worked with, with support if you need it.

But even with serious issues, you can grab your neuralyzer and start afresh if you’ve gotten off on the wrong foot. And with the small “bumps” that inevitably happen in our daily connections, our willingness to forget and start over becomes a not-so-small, sweet gift of kindness we can offer each other.

Image credit: Casey Horner, Unsplash

Please post your comments or questions below…and if there’s an issue or question you’d like me to write about, please email me—I’d be delighted to receive your request.