Memory is learning. The persistence of memory helps us make sense of what has already happened, to hold on to the felt experience of happiness, accomplishment, mistake and pain, so that we can learn what to pursue more eagerly and what to avoid at all cost. Memory is the accumulation of life.
There are many ways of looking at September 11, 2001. We can replay the images of that day in our mind as we would watch a documentary. Many of us can do that, and examine the events as they unfolded from many different points of view. Or, we can re-experience the memories of those events as we would watch a horror movie. Many of us are still beset by the images and the sounds of that day, and are far from being able to just remember what happened. They remember and indeed also relive vividly all the emotions of that day.
Documentary memories are transferred to another part of the brain, where they become archival items of experience. Unless they are intentionally recalled, they cause no special emotion. Indeed, the emotions associated with the original events are also memories, much like the sound track attached to a recording.
Traumatic memories never quite make it to the other side of the brain. No intentional recall is necessary, as they are ready to resurface at any moment, given the right trigger. These memories are intrusive, pervasive, they are the stuff of nightmares. The picture of a jetliner flying into one building, the second aircraft flying into its twin… Emotions are far from just a memory: we are back there, at that very moment, heart racing, sweat beads and all.
After a traumatic event, persistent emotion-laden memories can help foster a syndrome, post traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. The experience never quite goes into the archive. Bits and chunks of it just lie around, waiting to be re-experienced again and again. And so it is for many of our generation with 9/11, as it was for the prior one with the assassination of John or Robert Kennedy or Martin Luther King. Earlier than that it was Pearl Harbor, or the long horrors of the Great Depression.
Remembering what we lost that day of September, 10 years ago today—people, buildings, and peace. Will we, who lived through that day, ever truly be able to watch the Towers come down—as a documentary?