This week, thanks to the work of Caroline Criado Perez, London’s Parliament Square has seen the erection of its first statue depicting a woman, Millicent Fawcett, who campaigned for women’s right to vote for sixty years, and finally saw the Equal Franchise Act passed in 1928, a year before she died.
History is often commonly understood to be a simple account of the past, but in fact history is about an active process of both remembering and forgetting. As societies, we understand ourselves in terms of the past, and how some elements of the past are remembered and elevated to positions of importance, while others are diminished, or even written out of history completely. Criado Perez felt strongly that the hard work that women activists did to obtain the vote should be memorialised in a public way, putting Fawcett alongside the “great men” of British history. All societies, big and little, engage in a constant form of interaction with their own histories through a process of choosing what to remember. By creating a visual, public reminder of an element of British history that is often overlooked or diminished, Criado Perez has helped the British public move towards a more complete understanding of their shared past.
On an individual level, when we think about and interact with our own personal histories, we also choose what to remember and what to forget—and our choices can have dramatic consequences for our emotional and mental well-being.
For example, if we remember and choose to elevate to positions of importance in our landscape of memory all the times that we have behaved in a way that was embarrassing or inappropriate, this is likely to feed into any feelings of anxiety, depression, or low self-esteem that we might have—and a vicious circle may be created, whereby the worse we feel, the more we focus on unhappy memories from our own personal history.
Conversely, if the stories we tell ourselves about our past are all the ones that make us remember times when we were witty, successful, or got the upper hand, we may feed the narcissistic elements of our personality, and this can bring its own challenges.
When we tell ourselves—or others—stories about our past, it is important to remember that history is as much about what we choose to remember, and to forget, as it is about what “really” happened. With this understanding in mind, we can creatively explore our own memories, and try to see them from diverse points of view. Knowing that history is a creative, active process rather than just a litany of facts—even when we are talking about our own personal life history—helps us to understand it, and ourselves, better.
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