“Man’s memory shapes its own Eden within.” ~ Jorge Luis Borges
A guy named Jack had an awful memory. One day he ran into a friend he hadn’t seen in a long time. They got to reminiscing and joking about Jack’s poor memory. Jack told him he’d gone to a seminar which had improved his memory. His friend said, “That’s great. What was the name of the seminar?” “Well,” Jack said scratching his head, “wait a minute, I can’t remember but my wife went with me. I’ll ask her.” He turned to his wife. Then he turned back to his friend and said, “What’s the name of that flower with a long stem and thorns?” “You mean a rose,” his friend said.
“Right, thanks,” Jack said, “Hey, Rose, what’s the name of that seminar we attended?”
A rose is a good metaphor for memory, because memory can be both beautifully sweet and thorny and traumatic. Random, sweet memories have the ability to make you smile like a chimp in the middle of doing something totally unrelated. Thorny memories can ruin your day and hang around like a bad smell.
Memory can be both active, like a mental check list or automatic like breathing and riding a bike, but usually a combination of both because I’ve never forgotten how to ride a bike but I often forget to change the gears or put air in the tires.
Memory is our life blood, “I remember therefore I am,” but having a healthy attitude to memory is the key. The real issue is that we often forget how to remember. Then we get disoriented; we lose our context, forget how we fit in the scheme of things. It’s like Jason Bourne in the Ludlum books/movies. Bourne suffers amnesia and has no idea who he is, or how he knows what he knows. In one scene, he is sitting with a woman in a café and explains his strange relationship with memory.
I can tell you the license plate numbers of all six cars outside. I can tell you that our waitress is left-handed and the guy sitting up at the counter weighs two hundred fifteen pounds and knows how to handle himself. I know the best place to look for a gun is the cab or the gray truck outside, and at this altitude, I can run flat out for a half mile before my hands start shaking. Now why would I know that? How can I know that and not know who I am?
His memory’s fragmented. He desperately wants to make connections. He needs a context. We all want to know how our lives fit in. My father in law has an interesting experience that relates to this point about memory. His mother was orphaned in England as a child and traveled alone on a ship to Australia to live with two aunts. She was a very private person, and didn’t tell childhood stories. So my father in law only has fragments of information about this piece of his family history. He has been able to fill in some details from second hand information, and of course has very fond memories of his own experience with his mother, but it’s frustrating not to be able to get first hand stories about his family origins.
I can relate. I had a sister (Heather) who was still born, but because I was only 19 months old at the time, I have no memory of the situation. Because it was a traumatic experience for my parents, they didn’t talk about it for many years. I don’t blame them. They dealt with their sadness as best they could. But when I became aware, as an 8 year old that I had a sister who died, it was a disorienting experience. I felt disconnected from a piece of my family, and over the years I’ve grieved both the loss of Heather and the gap in my memory.
It’s one thing to have fragmented memory because of family circumstances. It’s another to live in a society where we’ve become disconnected from each other because we’ve forgotten how to remember, or as Mother Theresa said, “We’ve forgotten that we belong to each other.”
Holly Black, best selling American fiction author, wrote
Memory is slippery. It bends to our understanding of the world, twists to accommodate our prejudices. It is unreliable. Witnesses seldom remember the same things. They identify the wrong people. They give us the details of events that never happened. Memory is slippery.
We’re ruled by slippery, selective memory. The life and death of Jesus, Christopher Columbus, 9/11; all events that are seared into the collective memory. And yet the memories and the meanings are totally different for different people.
Some say that fish have a six second memory. That seems overly optimistic to me, but let’s run with it. So, one fish gets caught on a hook, then only six seconds later, all his fish friends are ready to take the bait themselves. We’re like fish. Steven Wright said, “I’ve got amnesia and deja vu at the same time. I think I’ve forgotten this before.”
When awful things happen, we SAY “we will remember them.” We SAY “never again.” But then we stand idly by and we let it happen again. We’re not really remembering.
Think about two specific events in history; the holocaust and the Newtown school shooting.
After the holocaust, we said “we will remember them.” And yet since 1945 there have been as many as 37 genocides. 3 million Bangladeshis dead, 2 million Cambodians, over 200,000 in Darfur, not to mention the multiple millions homeless and without hope. We let these atrocities happen even when we said “never again” because we’re only remembering in fragments. We’ve lost the connections, that these weren’t just numbers. Every one of those numbers was a person, with hopes and loved ones. Imagine if it was one of our families. Imagine. That’s how imagination works to give memory shape. How else can we feel empathy? And what sort of memory has no empathy?
In a few weeks, we honor the anniversary of the Newtown school shooting. We said, “Never again!” And yet since Newtown, according to one report I read, there have been over 28,000 gun related deaths in America. That’s 90 people every single day. We WANT to remember Newtown. We want to care. But we’ve forgotten how to remember. Life goes back to normal far too quickly.If we truly remembered Newtown, more would have changed. Instead, now we can add airports to the list of places where fear has infiltrated our psyches and overwhelmed our desire to be compassionate.
We remember Newtown (roughly) but forget that these were actual kids, just like our kids, going to school just like our schools. There is a gap in our memory. We don’t remember intimately. We have little shape or context to our lives. We need to remember that we’re connected, that we belong to each other.
Memory is not linear and it’s not certain. We inevitably bring our stories and prejudices to memory. So the challenge is to tell stories full of hopeful connections. Stories like this one;
Pamplona Alta is a shanty town on the outskirts of Lima. The town hangs precariously on a mud hill, 80% unemployment, no sewers, infrequent running water and desperate poverty. A wave of refugees flooded Pamplona Alta from the 1970s to 1990s, claiming the unused land. They slowly created a life for themselves, saving to buy one brick at a time and those who were most successful added rainproof roofs. In the 1990s, a new wave of refugees arrived, escaping political violence and even worse poverty in the cities. Then the older residents had a dilemma. They barely had enough to support their communities, but the needs of the new arrivals could tip them over the edge. On the other hand, they knew what it was like to be a refugee community and wanted to help the new refugees. What they did was create a reenactment of their own arrival in Pamplona 20 years before. By remembering their own homelessness, the trauma of moving to a desolate place and trying to eke out an existence, they were able to feel compassion for the new arrivals and find a way to include them.
The point is that memory is powerful and imagination, when used for constructive purpose to reframe the past, can help to shape the future. We can’t change the past, and we can’t always control the roaming sea of memories that fill our minds but we ALWAYS have the power to tell connected, hopeful stories. Lest we forget!