Memory is a funny thing. We remember certain details of an event over others. The memory of a thing will change over time, or at a retelling, or at hearing the perspective of another who experienced the same event. Sometimes we remember someone else’s experience as our own. Sometimes it is a choice – I rehearse an event by retelling, dwelling, journaling about it. Other times there is a trigger – a whiff of curry, a Steely Dan song, the angle of the sun’s rays on freshly mown grass just after a rain (oh yes, that house on Cornell from my childhood).
Then, there’s forgetting. I can’t remember where I set my phone. I suppress the memory of an embarrassing encounter at school. Or, perhaps some traumatic episode forced my brain to shut off an entire segment of life from memory. And likely one of our biggest fears, the threat of cognitive decline in one form or another as we age.
Today is, for U.S. citizens, a day of remembering. Instituted in 1868, Memorial Day is set aside to remember those who died while serving our country. There is record before this time of memorializing with flowers the gravesites of soldiers, but it was the civil war and Abraham Lincoln’s assassination that initiated its institution. But, as with any 1st world experience, a holiday is gladly accepted yet actually recalling that which secured freedom and relative ease is lost in barbecue and beer.
The Hebrew Bible is really a perpetual account of God’s relationship with Israel and instructions for how to remember God’s action therein. This account includes all the ways Israel forgot, and is an exquisite example of how all of humankind forget – forget the struggle, forget the rescue, the redemption, forget the reason for the struggle to begin with . . . and we forget that we’ve forgotten.
My daughter recalled today a phenomenon she has observed far too often – when a person experiences a negative interaction with one who is different, and then applies that negative appraisal onto all who share that difference. Memories that surround an especially emotional scene, in fact, include fewer details and less factual information than more benign settings. When I feel strongly about something as a result of a highly charged encounter, my memory of it cannot be trusted. This is exactly how prejudice is provoked and perpetuated.
Entire communities, nations even, will harbor the imprint of an explosive memory—usually as a result of invasion or war. And these wars continue while each “side” remembers only the offense perpetrated by the other, forgetting the atrocities executed by their own hands.
First remove the log from your own eye, then attend the speck in your neighbor’s. (Mt7:5)
My memory is imperfect. In fact, I have great difficulty remembering color. I have a very trained eye to distinguish nuance and subtle difference in the shade and hue of specific colors, but I regularly will remember something that is actually purple as green, or grey as blue. It is strange, but a good (less emotionally charged) reminder to hold my memory of an event provisionally. It also reminds me to appreciate and enjoy the beauty of color (and all that surrounds me just now) in this moment, as it is, and be thankful.
So today, I remember my grandfathers, Raymond Frederick Oliver, who served in WWI, and James David Albright, who served in WWII. I also take notice that the sky is absolutely clear (not a given in Chicagoland!) and the sun brightly shining. There is a breeze that keeps the heat at bay and my children are currently enthralled with Running Wild with Bear Grylls. This particular episode features Julia Roberts who enlisted Bear to help her bring life-saving vaccines to children in Kenya. I am grateful to live in a country that insists on freedom for everyone, and I pray that I remember rightly the cost of such liberty—and the errors our ancestors made in the process. And I hope – because hope is human, too – that as U.S. citizens we expand in capacity to hold lightly evocative encounters and treasure the gifts of what is right in front of us.
No one has
to lay down one’s life
for one’s friends. John 15:13