This article was originally published in the fall 2014 Harker Quarterly.
Good morning. I would like to welcome the classes of 2018, 2017, 2016 and 2015 to the 2014 matriculation ceremony. Matriculation is a ceremony initiated with the first class of the Harker upper school, the Class of 2002. During this ceremony new students to the upper school take an oath promising to follow the Honor Code, a document written by students in the early years of the Harker upper school and updated periodically. The Honor Code outlines how students as a community wish to live together and wish to be treated by each other. Honesty and respect, for instance, are important tenets of the Honor Code.
Each year I begin matriculation with an aspiration I have for the students for the school year. Because I have basically invited myself to speak at both matriculation and graduation, and I have accepted my own invitation, I try to confine my remarks to one page of single- space, size-12 font. I am adapting my aspiration for you this year from a TED talk given by the Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, author of “Thinking Fast and Slow.” Kahneman begins his TED talk by pointing out that studies of happiness are often confused by a lack of clarity around which self’s happiness we are discussing, the “experiencing self” or the “remembering self.”
What are the experiencing and remembering selves? According to Kahneman, the experiencing self is the self who lives his life from moment to moment; the remembering self is the self who thinks about his life. The experiencing self is the self the doctor inquires about when he pokes you and asks, “Does this hurt?” The remembering self is the self he inquires about when he asks how you have been feeling over the last few weeks. If you go on vacation, the self who is enjoying each moment is the experiencing self; the self who is planning the vacation beforehand and recalling it fondly while looking at pictures afterward is the remembering self. The experiencing self is your life and the remembering self thinks about your life. What is my hope for you this year? My hope for you this year is that you achieve a healthy balance between your experiencing self and your remembering self.
We need both selves. If we only had the experiencing self, we would live like a piece of music in which each note has no relation to the note that went before or the note that comes after. I think we all know people like this, and in some ways kids live more as an experiencing self. We need the remembering self to have what the philosopher Alan Watts calls “resonance.” It isn’t much good to be happy unless you know you are happy. Memory and metacognition are forms of feedback that give life resonance, just as good acoustical feedback gives our voice resonance. The remembering self is a kind of a neurological echo.
However, we can live under the tyranny of the remembering self, especially in high school. The remembering self compares with others, makes judgments, sets expectations and plans. The remembering self, when hyperactive, can create the same kind of zaniness that occurs when we have too much feedback, like when a cave produces too much echo or when we are overthinking a performance. Here is one of Alan Watts’ favorite limericks:
“There once was a man who said though, it seems that I know that I know,
yet what I would like to see
is the I that knows me
when I know that I know that I know.”
Kahneman asks what kind of vacation you would choose if you could take no pictures and your memory would be wiped upon return? High school is a time for planning and preparing, but what kind of life would you plan if your experiencing self, not your remembering self, were choosing? Too often we choose a path based on the remembering self’s ideas, not the experiencing self’s intuition. Whichever path you choose, hopefully your experiencing self will have some say and will be there to experience the joy of your flourishing.￼Living too much with the remembering self can remove us from the life all around us. John Lennon sang in his song “Beautiful Boy,” “Life is what happens to you when you are busy making other plans.” By achieving the right balance between the experiencing and remembering selves, we hope that you will find the life that is waiting for you, both this year and beyond. Thank you.