Yesterday, as I often do in class, I used a tragicomic episode from my past to illustrate a point. We were talking about the Lockean view that continuity of memory is what guarantees identity of person. In other words, to use the example, what makes me the same person as Tyler Hower in 1980, is that I have within my consciousness a memory of striking out at tee ball in a field at the PAL club in Huntington, Indiana, in the hot August sun. I talked about additions that need to be made to the account to guarantee that false memories don't count and to allow that I can still be the same person if I lose certain parts of my memory—something, I informed my 18-20 year-old students, would become more important to them as they became older.
Because San Diego was also riveted yesterday by the killing of an early morning swimmer by a great white shark, I also mentioned my ignominious failure at Notre Dame's swimming test and the resulting shame and required swimming class, when a sad, homesick college freshman. On top of my other examples throughout the semester, this led a student to ask if I have any happy memories at all. Given our topic of the relationship between memory and personal identity, this was a particularly apt question; and, it made me think about why I don't talk in class about happy memories.
There are, it seems, two reasons. Unhappy memories, because of the general appeal of Schadenfreude, are just more entertaining. The students remember them, they get their attention, they make them perk up. No one wants to hear about the sepia-toned memories of my youth. But, there is a more important reason. There have been a lot of happy memories in my life, even if I don't always dwell upon them—I am a pessimist or fatalist by nature—but they have a value to me that the others don't. When I tell some funny anecdote about my childhood or college or last week, I don't feel that I have torn down a wall and let anyone see into my real self, but the happy memories, those are sacred, those are few enough that I hold them dear. Those memories would be as inappropriate to talk about to a class or a stranger on a plane (or train) as it would be invite the class to continue our discussion at my home. The unhappy memories are public, the happy ones are mine.