Our Memories

March 24, 2012 Length: 15:46

How should we consider our memories? As simple camcorders, recording each event and recalling them the same way each time or something more complex?





Today, I’d like to reflect a few moments on memory. Memory, memory, memory. We’re human beings. We’re trying to become, one for the other, healing presences for one another. And part of our human makeup is the faculty, facility of our being we call our memory.

We start with God. We’re made in God’s image and likeness, and God, we pray, we believe, we speak humanly—we speak of God’s memory. In Psalm 78, it says, “He remembered that they were but flesh.” “He remembered.” It’s like, God remembered. And we Orthodox are fond of saying, “When God remembers, man lives.” A person, men and women. “When God remembers, man lives.”

God, of course, is simple and one and eternal, and we think of him as he disclosed himself to us in his revelation we call the Bible. But we talk about God’s memory. And a very fascinating part of God’s memory is in Isaiah. Isaiah 43 says of God, says, “I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and will not remember your sins.”

Well, isn’t that something for us to think about and remember? It says, “and will not remember your sins.” We’re almost tempted to say it sounds like divine amnesia. God will not remember our sins.

We do know what—the meaning of Isaiah, what God is revealing to us through Isaiah. God is not interested in keeping track of, keeping score about, constantly putting in our face the blots and sins we’ve committed. No. From his point of view, when sins are repented, we go forward. That’s God’s memory.

However, when we look at ourselves, though we’re made in God’s image and likeness, we do walk as human beings, fallen, on this planet. And our memory is quite, quite, quite like but unlike God’s. I’ll say it like that. Our memory is very fallen.

And I would say, as a clinical psychologist familiar with psychological studies, human memory is not really well understood by many of us. For example, in class, I will say to the students, “Please write down a metaphor for human memory. What is human memory like?”

And many of the answers, most of the answers, sound like, “Oh, human memory is like a computer.” Or, “Human memory is like a camcorder.” Or a voice recorder. Or a tape recorder.

Now, all I can say about that is that those analogies for camera or video recorder, all of those metaphors or comprehensions of human memory are just dead wrong. They have a fatal flaw built into that metaphor, that imagination. Because the assumption is, we have an experience, and then life goes on, and it’s there inside our head someplace, and when we want it, like the computer, we simply go back to that file and look at it, as if it’s there in our mental library stored for recovery. That’s not the case. That is simply not the case.

Human memory is chemical, and it changes. So human memory, memory of an event, changes as we live, according to the experiences, the feelings, the emotions, the thoughts, the behaviors that we experience as life goes on. And memory, the chemistry of memory, actually alters the molecules of our memory, which—memory, the brain, of course is all molecules, all atoms, neurons—that all changes.

So today, if one were to ask me my memory of September 11th, I could give a memory. This time next year, if you asked me my memory of September 11th, I’d say something—more likely than not, that memory as I say it will be different than the memory I said a year ago. Interestingly, on both occasions, I will be certain that that’s my memory, that’s my experience. Or we could be even more trivial. We could say, remember what you were doing last Fourth of July, what picnic you were at or whatever.

Memory changes according to our larger set of experiences. Now, there are vast implications to all of that. We have very, very fallen, flawed memories. Okay. But we need to own that. That is to say, we need to be aware.

The Greeks were really right when they said—the philosophers—that we never step into the same stream twice. Nope! If I put my foot in a stream, and I take my foot out, and then I put my foot back in the stream, in between the two times, the stream has actually changed. And so has my foot. That is to say, there’s no identical experiences as life goes on, for very good and very clear scientific reasons. We live in a fallen world. This is the way we are.

Now, if we begin to understand that, this is one of—in relationships, in a loving relationship, we’ll say in a marriage, two people have this same experience. Later, one month, one year later, they can be talking about the event they both experienced.

“I remember la-la-la.”

“Well, I remember lu-lu-lu.”

We were both there at the same time. Both are honest. Both are accurate subjectively. But objectively, if there were a camcorder having taken a picture of that experience, perhaps both are a little bit off.

That’s why accidents, when a whole bunch of people see the same accident, and they interview people about what happened, people see different things. And then later, if those same people were brought into court six months later, whatever they saw and would have recorded then very well is likely to be remembered somewhat differently later. We go along, and therefore, isn’t that a call to us becoming much more humble and much more able to admit difficulties and inaccuracies and failings in our human saga?

More than that, our human memory is basically dark, which is why we’re told to pray ceaselessly. So we’re not continually into remembering things, because what of all the experiences we’ve had, they get codified and then crystalized and then remembered in different kinds of ways. Re-re-re-restructured.

One of the lovely little things I do in class when I’m talking about memory is, simply write down the first thing you ever remember. So, go back in your memory as far back as you can go to the first thing you remember. At age fourteen, age seven, age five, age four, age three. And just write it down. Whatever age it was, write it down. And then we talk about it. And interestingly, having a whole group of people talk about their first memories, most of those memories are simply negative.

“Well, the first thing I remember is when I fell out of the tree fifteen feet above the ground and broke my arm.”

Or, “I remember when I took my dad’s wallet and put it in the garbage can, and it went away with the garbage.”

Or something that is negative. We don’t remember my fourth birthday party or second birthday party, or whatever it is. The human memory in our flawed, fallen state is negative.

Now, there are a lot of implications to that as well, in terms of what we remember. Because if we come back to the question of faith, then we have a creed which we can remember in its exactitude because it’s written and we can check it. And we have the Divine Liturgy, which is said the same way all the time, but the actual faith content we carry with us, yes, does change; its articulation, its memory is changed as we go along. There are some articles, we say articles of faith, Jesus Christ, the Trinity, which we can remember in exactitude, but beyond that, we really need written words. We need something beyond the human, fallen mind. So, we know that.

I want to play a song for us about memory and we as human beings pleading with God that he remember, keep us in his — remember us when we come into your Kingdom. And it’s in a Lenten melody.

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Remember us, O Lord, when Thou comest in Thy Kingdom.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled.
Remember us, O Lord, when Thou comest in Thy Kingdom.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
Remember us, O Lord, when Thou comest in Thy Kingdom.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
Remember us, O Lord, when Thou comest in Thy Kingdom.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
Remember us, O Lord, when Thou comest in Thy Kingdom.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.
Remember us, O Lord, when Thou comest in Thy Kingdom.

As we live our lives, particularly as we age—we have long-term memory, two different kinds of memory, long-term and short-term. Even more than that, but for our purposes, two kinds. Long-term memory does get crystalized and by and large becomes pretty concrete. But that’s long-term, and that’s a very few set of experiences. Most other experiences are in this cement mixer of change. Constant updating, our memories constantly being updated. And as we age, our memory fades, falters, becomes weaker and less accurate. We remember less. We remember less, certainly about the recent past.

And that’s all part of living. It’s part of the human condition. And we give that to God. In faith, we give God all, we surrender our entire being, our good and our bad, and mostly our bad, because what good we do comes through him. But it is important that as we grow, we know clearer and clearer, on the one hand how fallen and corrupt and unable, inadequate we are; and on the other hand, how strong and rendered-loving by a loving God, whose child we are, and we walk on with those two sides of the paradox.

I’ll end where I began: “When God remembers, man lives.”