This past week I’ve been reflecting on memory and remembrance. I’ve been thinking about why we remember what we do and why we forget other things. The following is a collection of musings inspired by some of my reading.
We take our memories for granted, but what if they were suddenly gone?
The movie Memento follows the story of Leonard, a man with short-term memory loss – someone for whom each moment, each event is experienced in and as a ‘now’ unconnected with previous instances of himself. He wakes up each day not knowing how previous moments led to the present he is now in. The movie runs backward from the present, each scene leading to the moment before, cause and effect turned upside down. Leonard struggles to communicate with his future self through notes and even tattoos. I can’t imagine what it would be like to suffer that kind of amnesia, not to remember, not to have a past, to only be aware of myself in the present, the here and now.
Memory is important to society as well. If our ability to bring the past to remembrance and consciously organize it into meaningful memories is an integral part of what makes us human, the more so this must be true of societies and cultures.
There are more and more indications, however, that our culture is sliding into a kind of collective amnesia. I think this is very evident in our mass media and entertainment, as well as in our churches. Who wants to hear about the past any more? How many people care whether the past is remembered? How numb are we becoming?
Dennis Patrick Slattery once visited the Terezin Ghetto and concentration camp, 25 miles north of Prague. In the May issue of The Progressive Christian, Dr. Slattery writes about being there and how it impacted him:
A fine museum there is filled with descriptions of the camp—empty suitcases, children’s drawings, musical scores, journals, shaving utensils, clothing—all serving to pull the horrors of the project out of abstraction and into fleshy reality. All of it serves to trigger a single act for those who encounter it: the act of remembering. It was the act of remembering—and forgetting—that framed what happened next.
I once visited the ruins of the Gestapo prison in former East Berlin. The exhibit and tour were entitled ‘Topography of Terror.’ Walking among the ruins and excavations created a palpable sense of the terrors that must have taken place there, of the people that suffered as a result of so great an evil. It had a lasting impact on me.
Caring is not synonymous with a sentimental feeling towards another or others. Caring is metaphysical in its depth and authenticity. If one stops caring for others, or even for one’s self, one may lose the memory of that same self. The Terezin camp is there to be remembered or forgotten. To deny its presence and its history based on feelings of discomfort about how one might respond—that is immoral.
Slattery goes on to make the connection between individual memory, memory of oneself, and collective remembrance:
We each have our own personal memory. But we also are obligated, I sense, to participate in a collective memory that lifts us out of our narcissistic tendencies and places us in a larger vessel of belonging. What an individual, a culture, a people or even a species chooses to remember and forget, where it makes the cut between what will be allowed in and what will remain outside, defines that entity even more than one’s fingerprints or biological heritage. Our identities are bound up with what we—as people and a culture—choose to forget as well as what we select to remember.
Jesus instinctively knew this, it seems. At the last supper he blessed the cup and passed it to his disciples, saying ‘Do this in remembrance of me…’ He draws us into a collective act of remembrance of his life, death and message that draws us into ‘a larger vessel of belonging,’ each time we participate in the Eucharist, and as we participate in the community of faith.
In A Generous Orthodoxy, Brian McLaren describes this deep remembering as:
…the kind of inwardly formed learning that Jesus, as master, teaches his apprentices; a knowledge about how to live that can’t be reduced to information, words, rules, books or instructions, but rather that must be seen in the words-plus-example of the Master … one learns the way of the master most fully by being in community of other students, including those who can remember and tell the stories about members of the community long departed.
It all seems to tie together in the act of remembrance. Food for thought.