Memory is a curious thing. It is not the same trait as intellect; many of the world’s smartest people can’t remember where they left their car keys. The most frustrating aspect of memory for those of us who don’t have the gift – apart from the headaches it causes those who live with us – is the failure of our brains to act like reliable nth-terabyte hard drives from which we can instantly access any desired thought as simply as double-clicking a mouse. This can be particularly intimidating when attempting to participate in a conversation where your friends are sharing detailed recollections of events that happened twenty, thirty years ago, recounting every sound, every smell, every syllable of dialogue. You feel lesser somehow. Incomplete. As we grow older, and friends and family fall away either through distance or the tragedy of passing, the reserves from which we can draw the history of our lives begin to dry up. Without a reliable memory to keep the flame alight, it can lead you to feel like a part of you is missing – that like in Blade Runner, it has been “lost in time, like tears in rain.” I’m envious of those who have had the foresight to keep diaries from a young age. Like saving for retirement, there are innumerable advantages to starting sooner rather than later. (If only there had been a version of WordPress for my old Commodore VIC-20.)
It’s been said that an unexamined life is not worth living, and how else can we examine that life without our memories to draw upon? At the same time, one is forced to ask whether the sum worth of a person’s existence is the breadth of the memory he carries, or the impact he has left on the outside world – in a sense, the memories others have of him. We must each arrive at a point in our histories where we question whether we have done enough with the life we have been given, if we have experienced, tasted enough of the richness that is our universe. What is it about our memories that makes us walk taller than the others who share the street with us? Are memories truly the building blocks – the only building blocks – of the soul? The end of Blade Runner is one of the most poetic expressions of this question. Nearing the last minutes of his four-year lifespan, the replicant Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) engages in a cat-and-mouse chase with Deckard (Harrison Ford), the man assigned to hunt him down and kill him. As Deckard is about to fall to his death from the side of a building, Batty unexpectedly reaches out and saves his life. Sitting quietly together with his adversary as his final seconds tick down, Batty recounts some of the wonders he has seen and mourns their passing. Up to this point the entire film has posed the question of what it is to have a soul, whether or not it matters if the components of that soul are electronic or organic. The replicants – the androids – show empathy for one another, feel fear, anger and sadness, while the humans are cold, relentless killers: Deckard at one point shoots an unarmed female replicant in the back twice as she flees half-naked through the streets. Batty’s final act of pure compassion toward the man who was sent to destroy him seems to suggest – notwithstanding his lament for his lost memories – that the soul is found in the actions, not the recollections. Not what we bring to the game of life, but how we play it. Perhaps that explains Batty’s wry smile as he whispers “Time to die” and his head sinks in the silence of the falling rain.
Whether we remember them or not, our memories have played a part in shaping our evolution as people, directing our choices based on past experience, the recollection of what works and what doesn’t. But they are not the definition of who we are. We exist in four dimensions and our future actions are as important to the overall portrait of us as what we have done in every second of existence leading to this point. The key difference is that the future is still under our control, the way our pasts and our memories never will be. We can choose to remember things a certain way, but that does not change how they happened. Each new moment brings with it limitless opportunity to forge a new and bolder path, to create a lasting legacy – a complete soul – whose every minute detail you won’t need to remember, because the evidence of it will be all around you wherever you go. Never to be lost like tears in rain.