A meditation on Memory
August 24, 2014
Synopsis (not for reading aloud at the service):
We are — our identity is — shaped by our memory and our habits. If we want renewal of who we are, be born again, we have only to start laying out new memories to supersede the old. If we don’t control our memories and our habits, they will control us!
Steve Jobs shows up at the Pearly Gates and discovers that St. Peter is no longer using his Book of Life — like almost everyone else, he has upgraded to an iPad to look up folks at the gate.
What? He’s using an iPad? And it’s connected to an iCloud? Doesn’t he know the NSA has its paws all over that? Doesn’t he know all those records could be hacked? And the wrong people would get into heaven? Oh wait, they already have!
Why does God’s gatekeeper at the Heavenly Kingdom need an iAnything? And why did he need the Book of Life in hard copy before the iPad came along? Why couldn’t he just remember? It’s just one bit of information for every person, good/not-good, it can’t be that hard, can it?
We all know the answer: remembering is hard, memory is often wrong, and it’s very subjective anyway. Mine has been going downhill ever since the teenage years. The trend shows no signs of slowing, let alone reversing.
To give us all a little break, there has been some recent research activity suggesting that our gradually-slowing-brains may just be slowing because they are too full, it takes more effort to locate things and more effort to retrieve things even after they’ve been located. Every time we go into the attic looking for something, we see other things up there, and take many trips down memory lane before actually coming back with what we went looking for. And sometimes we just forget what we came for and return empty-handed.
So next time you wonder why you get distracted, why the stove got left on, why you never returned the call you should have returned, maybe your brain isn’t declining, maybe it’s just stuffed with stuff, maybe it just needs a little clearing? OK, a lot of clearing!
Related to the same, there is some speculation that the forgetfulness associated with ADHD may be due to an extraordinary memory (how contradictory is that?).
And yet, memory is the glue that binds our inner mental life together and provides a sense of continuity in our lives. We are who we are because of what we learn and remember. It keeps assorted facts together and keeps them organized. It is also the keeper of habits, of everything we do without thinking deeply about it. Our memory is everything and without it we are nothing.
Our memory extends to form a collective memory. Back in 1915, the Ottomans began what is referred to as the first-ever genocide: the systematic annihilation of over a million Armenians. It had started with the murder of “just” 250 people. To this day, the Turks and the Armenians remember the arc of that genocide differently and with extreme bitterness toward the other.
Some have traced modern terrorism to the bitterness resulting from the fall of the Ottoman empire and the desire to re-establish the Caliphate. Such is the nature of memory! It’s an amazingly powerful force and it drives our emotions. It can get us to do things we wouldn’t do in our “saner moments”.
We get ourselves stuck in individual memories, in collective memories, in national memories, and there is no way out. A sharp sound can trigger it, or a smell, or a certain gesture. We forget that we’re not in Iraq any more, that someone reaching into his pocket isn’t necessarily reaching for a grenade. We lock our car when in Dorchester, even when passing in front of a church.
In other words, memory is a force that controls so much of our lives. This talk is my attempt at trying to understand the many ways we can be aware of its doings, and how we can compensate for its shortcomings.
About this talk
This talk is about getting unstuck from the trappings of memory and habits. But I’m skipping past a related topic — dementia. Therein lies proof that memory = identity, but that topic deserves its own talk, probably by someone who has been touched by it more than I have.
The title of the talk came from the song at the end — Memory — sung by Elaine Page, Barbra Streisand and countless others. I had been reflecting on it at Denny Donaldson’s memorial service. She used to sing it so well. One time, she was doing a summer service and at the end, in the talk-back period, I asked if she could sing it. She did, and the memory of her singing it has been etched in my memory ever since. This song brings me to tears every time I hear it, it’s a complex of emotions.
When you hear it again at the end of the service, I’d like you to notice the melancholy note it begins with and the bleak landscape it paints. I won’t try and sing it and as soon as you hear me recite a verse, you’ll know why.
Midnight, the darkest hour
Not a sound from the pavement
Has the moon lost her memory?
She is smiling alone
In the lamplight
The withered leaves collect at my feet
And the wind begins to moan
Talk about bleak! And then she looks fondly back at how things were. It’s a celebration of that time but it’s also a trap, of course. More on that in a moment.
Memory of Joys Past
All alone in the moonlight
I can smile at the old days
I was beautiful then
The time I knew what happiness was
Let the memory live again
We’re pretty sure it wasn’t all roses back then but that’s what we get from the song. I tie it to the Daniel Kahneman notion of the remembering self vs. the experiencing self. He talks about an example where you go to a concert and hear an absolutely sublime piano sonata for 20 minutes. And just as it’s coming to an end, somewhere in the concert hall, a cell phone rings.
If we are asked about the sonata, the thing we remember is that cell phone. Those last 5 seconds seem to have been the ones that formed your memory; the 20 minutes of sublime music, all the enjoyment we felt without knowing about the cell phone call that was yet to come, was experienced by our experiencing self but not transferred to the remembering self.
Remember the old joke, “other than the incident at the end, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?”
All that is a way of saying: what we remember isn’t the whole thing, it’s often not the most pleasant thing either, so best not to dwell on it too much. Memory has a way of accentuating the negative, except at funerals, of course.
We have all met people who are so stuck, reliving events of the past over and over again, that they fail to imagine the future. We just want to say: get over it, move on, build yourself a future!
But it’s not like one can will oneself to forget. I offer as an example a very touching song called
Forget Ya, by Cee Lo Green. Anyone remember the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
? In both of those cases, and in countless others, the protagonist tries to forget a past love but concludes in the end that he can’t. So are we really trapped by our memories forever?
I want to say no. I want to say we’re not condemned to this fate of ever-accumulating attics of the brain and ever-slower performance of our random access memories.
A fatalistic warning
Every street lamp
Seems to beat
A fatalistic warning
Someone mutters and the street lamp sputters
Soon it will be morning
Sounds really scary, doesn’t it? There’s a sense of foreboding, not knowing what’s to come.
Daniel Gilbert of Harvard has been doing some very interesting work. He asked people about the changes they had seen in their lives over the previous ten years and also about the next ten years of their lives. You’d think the expected change over the next 10 years would be, statistically speaking, similar to the change over the previous 10 years. Not so, he found out. He calls it a failure of imagination. I’m not quite sure. Maybe it fear of the future, this sense of foreboding? The past is so concrete, so easy to stick to — inaccuracies and all. The future? That’s a scary place! Better to let it happen to us rather than think about it.
Germany after the war found itself stuck in memories. On the one hand, the descendants of Nazis couldn’t just walk away from the horrors of WW-II. On the other hand how could they be held to blame for the past? How could they move on from that low point and still remain relevant on the world stage?
It seems that today’s generation of Germans does not feel personally guilty for the Nazi era, but yet they realize they cannot divorce themselves from it. This generation of Germans realize each new birth continues the story of their people, but it is the same story. that is carried on from generation to generation.
I know of no better symbol for this than the rebuilding of post-war Germany’s buildings, often with the same stones that stood as rubble for many years. The present is but a continuation of the past, even if in a totally different mode and direction. The past remains part of the scene, but you move on. You invest, you build. And maybe one day you win the Soccer World Cup in addition to winning the World Economy cup!
I must wait for the sunrise
I must think of a new life
And I mustn’t give in
When the dawn comes
Tonight will be a memory too
And a new day will begin
I must think of a new life. And thus begins the transformation. At first it is just an act of imagination and will, a determination to not let our memories control us, a determination to move on. Nothing else. But soon it becomes more, a lot more.
I quote from Nelson Mandela on National Reconciliation Day, 16 December 1995.
There are few countries which dedicate a national public holiday to reconciliation. But then there are few nations with our history of enforced division, oppression and sustained conflict. And fewer still, which have undergone such a remarkable transition to reclaim their humanity.
We, the people of South Africa, have made a decisive and irreversible break with the past. We have, in real life, declared our shared allegiance to justice, non-racialism and democracy; our yearning for a peaceful and harmonious nation of equals.
But we do know that healing the wounds of the past and freeing ourselves of its burden will be a long and demanding task. This Day of Reconciliation celebrates the progress we have made; it reaffirms our commitment; and it measures the challenges.
Reconciliation however, does not mean forgetting or trying to bury the pain of conflict.
The Truth and National Reconciliation Commission which will soon begin its work, is one important institution created by our democratic Constitution and Parliament in order to help us manage the more difficult aspects of healing the nation`s wounds. Thus we shall free ourselves from the burden of yester-year; not to return there; but to move forward with the confidence of free men and women, committed to attain the best for ourselves and future generations.
This, to me, is the essence of getting unstuck — to move on without really forgetting, to reconcile with the past but stop dwelling on it. The reconciliation didn’t happen overnight.
You might say South Africa’s reconciliation is a work in progress, just as our own reconciliation around our own history with past wrongs is a work in progress.
The first glimmers of change
Burnt out ends of smoky days
The stale cold smell of morning
A street lamp dies, another night is over
Another day is dawning
The first glimmers of change, of awakening and noticing, perhaps, that the darkness won’t be forever.
A plea for reconciliation
It’s so easy to leave me
All alone with my memory
Of my days in the sun
If you touch me
You’ll understand what happiness is
Look a new day has begun
I see it as a plea for reconciliation, for understanding, for compassion. I see it as a plea for helping her layer new memories on top of the old ones. That she will be helped by it is unquestionable. What is surprising about this stanza is the promise she lays out for you: You’ll understand what happiness is.
Reminds me of something Ralph Donaldson, Denny’s late husband, used to say about A Course in Miracles: Every loving thought is true, Everything else is a plea for help.
I’d like to conclude with a long-ish reading about forgiveness. It’s a pretty dominant theme in Christianity and an essential ingredient of what I think is necessary for us to move on. This one is from a Corrie TenBloom; who she was and the context of the reading will become clear during the reading.
A word about this reading. I haven’t yet been able to read it without choking up and I’ve asked Carolyn, our Worship Host, to complete it in case I can not. After the reading, please observe a 20-second silence and we’ll go to the closing words after that.
I’m still learning to forgive (Corrie TenBoom)
It was in a church in Munich that I saw him, a balding heavy-set man in a gray overcoat, a brown felt hat clutched between his hands. People were filing out of the basement room where I had just spoken. It was 1947 and I had come from Holland to defeated Germany with the message that God forgives.
And that’s when I saw him, working his way forward against the others. One moment I saw the overcoat and the brown hat; the next, a blue uniform and a visored cap with its skull and crossbones. It came back with a rush: the huge room with its harsh overhead lights, the pathetic pile of dresses and shoes in the center of the floor, the shame of walking naked past this man. I could see my sister’s frail form ahead of me, ribs sharp beneath the parchment skin. Betsie, how thin you were!
Betsie and I had been arrested for concealing Jews in our home during the Nazi occupation of Holland; this man had been a guard at Ravensbruck concentration camp where we were sent. …
“You mentioned Ravensbruck in your talk,” he was saying. “I was a guard in there.” No, he did not remember me.
“But since that time,” he went on, “I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fraulein, …” his hand came out, … “will you forgive me?”
And I stood there — I whose sins had every day to be forgiven — and could not. Betsie had died in that place — could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking?
It could not have been many seconds that he stood there, hand held out, but to me it seemed hours as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do.
For I had to do it — I knew that. The message that God forgives has a prior condition: that we forgive those who have injured us. “If you do not forgive men their trespasses,” Jesus says, “neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses.” …
And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion — I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. “Jesus, help me!” I prayed silently. “I can lift my hand, I can do that much. You supply the feeling.”
And so, woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.
“I forgive you, brother!” I cried. “With all my heart!”
For a long moment we grasped each others’ hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely as I did then.