I woke this morning to find my Facebook feed full of reminders to "never forget" the September 11 terrorist attacks. I am reminded of the Jewish community's insistence that we keep vivid the memory of the Holocaust. It says something about a person's values, I think, what that person thinks worth striving to vividly remember -- a grudge, a harm, a treasured moment, a loved one now gone, an error or lesson.
What we remember says, perhaps, more about us than we would want. Forgetfulness is an unwitting confession of our values. The Nazi Adolf Eichmann, in Hannah Arendt's famous portrayal of him, had little memory of his decisions about shipping thousands of Jews off to their deaths, but he did remember in detail his small social triumphs with superiors in the Nazi hierarchy. He vividly remembered the notable occasion, for example, when he was permitted to lounge around by a fireplace with Reinhard Heyrich, watching the Nazi leader smoke and drink (Arendt 1963, p. 114). Eichmann's failures and successes of memory are more eloquent and accurate testimony of his values than any of his outward avowals.
I remember obscure little arguments in philosophy papers if they are relevant to an essay I am working on, but I can't seem to keep track of the parents of my children's friends. Some of us remember insults and others forget them; some remember the exotic foods they ate on vacation, others the buildings they saw, others the wildlife, and still others hardly anything specific at all.
From the leavings of memory and forgetfulness we could create a nearly complete map, I think, of a person's values. What you don't even see -- the subtle sadness in a colleague's face? -- and what you might briefly see but don't react to or retain, is in some sense not part of the world shaped for you by your interests and values. Others with different values will remember a very different series of events.
Michelangelo is widely quoted as having said that to make David he simply removed from the stone everything that was not David. Remove from your life everything you forget; what is left is you.