Memory vs. moments: Where’s the balance in life?


Photo credit: Kara Killinger

This past weekend, I went on a student bus tour of the Isle of Skye in Northern Scotland. Each place the bus stopped could be a desktop background, which is probably why Kanye West and Harry Styles have both shot music videos in Skye. The picturesque scenery was definitely why our tour featured so many “photo stops,” during which we would file out of the bus, look at the beautiful scenery, take some pictures and then leave.

After a few of these stops, I started noticing that most of us were looking at the landscape from behind our phone screens. Our primary goal was looking good in pictures or getting the coolest shot to make into our Facebook cover photo. This realization made me suddenly take on the mindset of a bitter old man ranting about how social media is destroying the youth. I thought, what are we doing? Look at us in front of this beautiful thing, and we care more about getting pictures of it than actually seeing it.

The thing is though, I’m glad to have the pictures I took over the course of those two days. I’ll probably look back on them for years to come, remembering the breathtaking view we had of the Three Sisters Hills at Glencoe, how brightly colored the seaside shops were in Portree, how cold my right hand was after I dropped my glove in a puddle as we climbed up the Storr. I can never go back in time to relive those moments. Yet they would be more fully lost had I not photographed them.

We all have this urge to immortalize our experiences. It’s not a 21st century thing, a millennial thing or a Snapchat thing.

My first year at Trinity, we talked in HUMA about the ancient Greek concept of kleos. The word directly translates to “renown” or “glory” but can also refer to the medium that conveys glory, which tended to be poetry or song in ancient Greece. People cared about Achilles because of his heroic actions, but what mattered infinitely more in the end were representations of those actions, which outlived not only Achilles but also the entire civilization that first celebrated him. In Plato’s “Symposium,” Socrates goes as far as to argue that certain heroes sacrificed their lives for the sake of being remembered. Socrates quotes a dialogue in which the wise Diotima asks, “Do you really think that Alcestis would have died for Admetus or that Achilles would have died after Patroclus … if they hadn’t expected the memory of their virtue — which we still hold in honor — to be immortal?”

I have taken no heroic actions in Scotland. Still, my life here is so far removed from regular life that I feel deeply obligated to document it. I spam my Instagram story with scenes from Scotland, take pictures of every meal that is even a little fancy-looking and write in my journal at least weekly. If I wasn’t writing these articles, I’d probably join other studiers abroad in starting a travel blog to inform both my future self and my faraway friends about how wonderful a time I’m having. A question does pop into my mind sometimes: am I studying abroad to really experience life in Scotland? Or am I just here to create memories — pictures, stories, Trinitonian articles?

I think everyone studying abroad feels the same urgency to document, even if it’s just to prove to our future selves that yeah, we were really here. We looked out over the city from the top of a castle. We shopped at supermarkets much smaller than H-E-B. Maybe these memories won’t give us epic renown for generations to come, but we can still hold onto them. Flip through our camera rolls at family dinners. Have adventures to brag about on dates.

No recreation of experience is as full as reality, however. A whole day’s nuances are reduced in a journal entry to, “I had a great time!” and a whole weekend’s journey across Skye becomes an example in an article that’s really about something else.

I am not going to stop writing or remembering or taking pictures. But I’m trying to remind myself — wherever I go — that memory is supposed to fuel life. Not the other way around.