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Reach out and touch someone, but not always
On the Epic of Gilgamesh, swapping tales with old friends, and learning to delineate between the good of knowing and the virtue in forgetting
One of humanity's key evolutionary advantages is the ability to store, process, and retrieve our knowledge externally. We write our to-do lists on paper, document our best procedures in textbooks, execute complex processes through teamwork, and store information in databases. Even the simple act of storytelling reflects the ways in which oral traditions permitted our ancestors to store knowledge in common: The Epic of Gilgamesh might not be a stunningly factual account, but it doesn't seem likely that any other animal species are telling inter-generational tales like we can.
■ Even swapping tales with old friends is a practice in retrieving and recalling old information that may even be autobiographical, but of which we don't have to carry the whole, each by ourselves. Get married, some say, so that you only have to remember half of what you "know". This externalization of memory is a powerful advantage for human beings, and it's probably shaped human history to an extent none of us can fathom.
■ But what we know is different from how we feel, and it seems likely that there is some measure of peril in storing our feelings externally. Surely everyone knows someone who can't help but spill every minute emotional encounter all over everyone around. Some are emotional vampires. Some compulsively over-share their intimate thoughts with their social-media networks. Others are just full-time drama queens.
■ The mechanisms that enhance our ability to store and recall knowledge can have pernicious effects on how we process and moderate our emotions. That starts with the imperfection of detailing our feelings in the same ways we document knowledge; it's often only a rough translation, at best. Putting feelings into words is a challenge as old as language itself.
■ But the hazard goes much further than that. One of the key developmental steps in healthy emotional management is learning how to acknowledge feelings and work with them in healthy ways. As the therapist Philippa Perry writes, "This is what a child needs: for a parent to be a container for their emotions. This means you are alongside them and know and accept what they feel but you are not being overwhelmed by their feelings." And it's what makes the ring theory so helpful in psychology: The person at the center of emotional trouble can find relief by leaning on others who are less directly affected, with the suffering being allowed to dissipate as more degrees of separation from the immediate problem are enlisted to share the burden.
■ The tools -- especially the electronic ones -- that allow us to store, retrieve, and transmit useful information more easily than ever before are phenomenal for the things we know. But they can imprison people into reliving the same emotional injuries over and over, deprive others of the kind of moderation that follows from quietly processing their own feelings before sharing, and expose lots of bystanders to the kinds of strong feelings that might be better dissipated by distance and time. On the Internet, the death of your mail carrier's uncle's golden retriever can abruptly become a tragedy from which you cannot escape.
■ This isn't a problem we can outsource to artificial intelligence or manage through Solomonic regulations. It's a human incongruity between the great good some of our tools can do to make us smarter and the expansive harm they can do if allowed to stunt us emotionally. Yet discussing the problem openly and grappling with it is a vital human undertaking -- especially knowing how much of the fundamental nature of it is the same as it was hundreds and even thousands of years ago.
■ "[W]henever a man thinks about something that distresses him, and worry, grief, or sadness crop up in him, it can be due only to one of two things: either he is thinking about a matter that has already taken place [...] or else he is thinking about matters he expects and whose advent he dreads", in the words of Maimonides. Only now, it is possible to indulge in those feelings non-stop. People haven't changed, but people's tools have.