If a Goldfish Could Remember

During my final teenage years I held and could not shake the idea that goldfish were a supremely lucky species. Goldfish lived, forgot, kept on living and forgot again, their memories famously said to last just three seconds. We humans are destined to remember forever: an indiscretion lasts a lifetime. We are, in other words, goldfish that can remember.

Not that my indiscretions were great, or that I really have any to recall at all. But it was nonetheless precisely this fear of mistakes, of regrets, that defined my decisions from ages eighteen to twenty. I think it was literature that did it to me. Literature and, perhaps, my knowledge that the lessons from literature were likely to be compounded in a world where collective memories are stored online.

Milan Kundera wrote, of a subtly different but somehow similar idea, that “Human life occurs only once, and the reason we cannot determine which of our decisions are good and which bad is that in a given situation we can make only one decision; we are not granted a second, third or fourth life in which to compare various decisions”.

For Kundera, humans should feel lightness in making decisions because there is no way we can determine good or bad decisions. Yet we must decide, and should therefore feel lightness about any ramifications of a decision we could not avoid. For those he disagrees with, we would feel unbearable weight because in every moment we make decisions that we must suffer the consequences of. I’ve always thought that Kundera sees humans as helpless in the face of grand decisions, and therefore paradoxically able to throw off any chains and burdens; most of us, however, see humans as culpable for decisions, and therefore prone to the feeling of weight.

But it seems to me that Kundera more closely describes goldfish than humans. Goldfish live one life, but are unable to learn within it; each three-second block is lived in a form of the dictum that “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” With no memory there is indeed the impossibility of culpability for actions; mistakes and bad decisions will be repeated endlessly, and one can hardly assign any blame or fault to the goldfish. It is true that humans live but one life; but unlike the goldfishes’ life, a human’s can be improved based on past experiences.

A goldfish that can remember is a goldfish that makes a mistake and can resolve not to repeat it. A goldfish that can remember is one that is culpable for its actions. It still lives just one life, yet that life can be changed, improved, bettered through its course.

A goldfish that can remember can legitimately make a mistake once and claim innocence. But beyond that, a feeling of weight is appropriate: the feeling that weighs on our throats, just below our adams-apple, when we must make a decision the consequences of which we have previously seen. It is this weight that encourages learning, changing course, improving.

A goldfish that can remember is one that disavows previously held views when new facts or ideas come to light. Consistency is a virtue only for the goldfish with a three-second memory—consistency in what is practically insanity. Flexibility in light of new learning is the virtue of the goldfish that can remember.

I begin my third decade somewhat sorry for the simple goldfish, and thankful for being a goldfish that can remember. I am less afraid of saying and doing what I think and believe, where previously I lived in fear of saying or doing something I might later disagree with. I feel lightness because I can learn from mistakes; I can act and learn, then decide whether to repeat the action or not. The weight of consequence allows the lightness that comes from an ability to learn and to change course. The goldfish whom I so fervently admired now seems a poor fellow; the lightness of innocence is, in the end, the greatest of burdens.