The intuition that one has when a loved one dies or when a major tragic event takes place is to somehow memorialize the individual or scene of tragedy, often captured in the vow and promise to ‘never forget’. Memorialization may take many forms. Some plant a tree or donate to a charity in honour of loved ones. Others might get a unique tattoo or build a statue to remember lost lives. I recall once being in a local pub and a friend telling me that he saw a man with his right arm tattooed with ‘9/11’ and the other with ‘never forget’. Some years ago, I attended the Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta and witnessed a memorial room for all the lives lost during the civil rights era.
This is not strange. It is the norm.
When I recently discovered news of my mother’s changing health, my first intuition was to get a tattoo. Perhaps the words ‘where there is a will, there is a way’. The significance of these words is personal. I initially heard and learned this phrase from my mother at a fairly young age. I remember years later asking her what about a bad or evil will, was there a way for that too? Her response was considerate and thoughtful. She said, ‘where there is a good will, there is a way’ [my mother is a natural Kantian I think, though she has never heard the name]. I cited this memory when I completed my Doctorate in the acknowledgement section where I thanked her for teaching me the valuable lesson of being open to changing one’s mind and opinions in light of new questions and inquiries.
While this is just one memory, the memorialization of it on my skin with permanent ink is surely a way to one day keep the promise to ‘never forget’. After all, every day I would be able to look upon my arm (or wherever the tattoo is placed) and remember a lost loved one.
Philosophy, however, can often lead down to strange and, sometimes, counter-intuitive conclusions. I realized, through a series of conversations with a wonderful colleague, and through exposure at a conference I recently helped co-host at my institution on ‘Memory, History and Justice’, that doing so [i.e. memorializing] may indeed have the opposite effect, that is, it may in fact lead to forgetting.
Let me first say that I am not an expert in this area. The thoughts I share here are my own in the sense that they are my personal reflections while simultaneously acknowledging that I remain nearly wholly ignorant of what scholars in the field are currently writing. But this short reflection is neither intended as an academic piece nor as a reflection on academic scholarship. I was fortunate enough to recently meet Professor Alfred Frankowski who works in this area in terms of memory, race, identity, racial justice and social justice more generally. Since meeting and chatting with him and attending his keynote address, I have been thinking much about what he termed as ‘the politics of mourning’ which, as far as I understand, aims to neither memorialize past events nor to constantly grieve their absence but to learn how to continue conducting one’s life with awareness that something is missing.
So let me explain, both briefly and as best as I can, why when such a time comes I will not memorialize loved ones.
My loved ones are not reducible to any one object, memory, statement, or act of kindness. My mother, for instance, is not reducible to a single picture or series of albums. She is not contained in the statement ‘where there is a good will, there is a way’. She is not found in my favourite aroma or meal or most pleasant of pleasant memories. Memorializing her in any one (or all) of these things may serve two unintended purposes. First, by doing so it may lead to the feeling that I have done my part and now am ready to move on. Second, it limits my memory to that single (or series of) objects. To do so, in my opinion, is to help forget. To say she is this or that or those things is to do my memory a disservice.
In respect to the first concern, I don’t wish to either forget or constantly grieve. Moving forward is part of the intention but it is a matter of how I move forward that is of greater interest. Following my conversation with Frankowski, and through much reflection, I wish to mourn rather than memorialize. I don’t intend mourning in the traditional sense of ‘feeling sadness or regret’ about a loss but rather learning how to be mindful that something essential is missing while still finding the strength to carry on with what is. I wish to carry on with a mournful element to my existence. I want my mother and other loved ones to be in view and not in some sort of rearview mirror.
In respect to the second concern, my mother is in everything I do and am. Whether I am cooking eggs in the morning or tilting my head sideways while contemplating some idea, she is present. She is in and part of my very thoughts, ideas, biological make up; she is quite literally in my very being and personhood. I am unable to narrow her memory. To do so, thorough a series of objects in my home or on my body (tattoos) or whatever else, would, I realize now, lead to potentially forgetting all else that she is.
As usual, there is always more that can be said and offered on any and all subjects but I do not wish to belabor the point. In short, this is why when such a time comes I will not memorialize loved ones.
Some family and friends who may one day visit my home might wonder why I lack any framed pictures or other similar objects of departed loved ones. But if they look closer, I hope they will realize that my mother is in everything in my life and the need to identify any one object with her will neither do her any justice or help me remember and mourn the way I wish.