This entry is cross-posted from Medium
When I first saw Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, I was fascinated. I loved the story and the way it was told and I was impressed by the cast, but what really stuck with me was this idea of willfully having a portion of one’s memory erased. In the film, Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) undergoes a cutting-edge procedure from Lacuna, Inc. to have all his memories of his ex-girlfriend (Clementine Kruczynsk, played by Kate Winslet) erased, a procedure that [spoiler alert] she has already undergone before the film begins. These two are not the only ones to have their memories erased, however?—?the film indicates that Lacuna has many clients, some of them repeat customers.
As a naïve college student, I found the story interesting but implausible. I just could not understand why anyone would want to have their memories erased. The film [another spoiler alert] eventually leads the viewer to believe that what Lacuna offers is a very unwise course of action, but I walked away thinking that it was not even believable to suggest that so many people would ever try it in the first place. To be honest, the idea that anyone would willfully have a memory erased, no matter how bad that memory was, just seemed too crazy to even consider.
Well, experience is the hardest teacher.
Fast forward eight years and I found myself working through what was the most difficult point in my career (so far). I try not to dwell too much on the details, but suffice it to say that I was out of a job after a very stressful year, having contributed to a project that was very near and dear to my heart only to be torn away from it and told that all my work was garbage.
[I tried to type a few more sentences to describe what happened in more detail, but it was too painful, so I’ll move on.]
I did not enter the “real world” thinking that bad things would never happen to me, but no one ever told me how to deal with these experiences. It did not help that the terms of my employment contract stipulated that I could not disclose anything about what happened for a full year after the fact, something that my former boss made sure to remind me of. I told myself that I would feel better if I got back to work quickly, so I did… but it did not help. I struggled for months, then years. I used to have lots of ideas… suddenly I had none. I used to enjoy working with other people… suddenly I felt like I could not let my guard down. I used to be confident to a fault… now the only thing I was sure of was that I was unsure.
I had other jobs. Life went on. But I could not get over.
It’s fascinating how our worst experiences follow us. There are so many great memories that I wish I had retained, but the worst ones stuck around regardless. Quality over quantity is a great policy, of course?—?I remember the birth of my son vividly, partly because I made a conscious decision going into it that I would hold on to the memory as much as I could, and partly because I play it back in my mind all the time. I can distinctly define my life in two parts: before and after he was born. There are many kinds of experiences that people say are life-changing. I was saved at 12. I finished college at 21. I was married at 23. But it was in that moment, when I was looking into the eyes of this new creation staring right back at me, that I knew everything had changed.
Still, the baggage remains.
They say time heals all wounds. Actually, a wound left untreated can kill you. But as time goes on you make new memories, and you begin to feel a distance from your wounds. They don’t really go away?—?they just become easier to ignore. But the hardest part about dealing with a wound in your past is not the pain, or having to relive it again and again. The hardest part is that it makes you question who you are.
Each of us is a sum of our experiences. Our memories make us who we are. When I first saw Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, I could not understand why Joel would want to give up a part of his self. But looking back on my own experience, I realized that in the months and years that followed I struggled to come to terms with how it would define me. Could I have done anything differently? Was it my fault? Would I ever be the same again? I remember wishing many times that I could go back to who I was before it happened. I wanted to be someone who never had to go through something like this. I wanted it to stop influencing my work, the way I interacted with others, the way I looked at the world. I wanted to be the person who was not a product of this memory.
I finally understood Joel.
And I wished that I could have my own memory erased.
Lacuna, Inc. only exists in fiction. Maybe someday their procedure will be a reality. For now, we have to live with our memories. I could write a lot about how I got over. In short, my family and friends helped. I prayed a lot. I counted my blessings daily. But between you and me, I’m not actually fully over it. Maybe I never will be.
Some days I try to remind myself that I am still, and always will be, someone who helped create one of the most successful games of all time. Regardless of the circumstances, I managed to do something great, and nothing will change that. Other days I just try to pretend that what happened was something mundane, something easy to forget about. A minor thing really. I tell myself that eventually I will look back and it will seem infinitesimally small. I convince myself that it is not a character-builder, but just an unfortunate event in my past. It does not have to be a part of who I am. In this way, it’s almost like I can let go of it. Like I can erase it for good and not have to worry about it ever again.
Almost like that.
But ultimately I have to recognize that even the worst memories are a part of the journey that brought me to where I am today. If things had gone differently, who would I have become? God only knows. Maybe if the circumstances had been different, things would have turned out much better for me… or much worse. It makes no difference. This is where I am. This is what I know. And if my memories make me question who I am, then maybe it’s up to me to redefine myself.
I can live with that.