March 9, 2018

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

In our lives, let’s not forget the importance of memory

Cynthia DewesThanks for the memory. Literally. These days, when we’re hearing so much about Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, we’re grateful for the ability to remember. Of course, we all forget faces or names or events now and then, but generally our memories still work.

There’s such a thing as selective memory. That’s when the hearer doesn’t want to admit they heard something, as in she: “I told you about that yesterday.” He: “No you didn’t.” And memory may be willfully selective because it either protects us from a bad memory or reminds us of a good one.

We have a traumatic physical injury, perhaps, or experience the death of someone we love, so selective memory kicks in to protect us from the pain. Or selective memory may kindly repeat the joy we felt at being praised or feeling loved. It’s something we can control, but it’s often a phenomenon which I believe comes from a generous God.

There’s a thing called collective memory, in which entire nations or large groups of people remember something in mainly the same way. We all remember the Holocaust, whether we were directly affected by it or not. We all regret and abhor the inhumanity inflicted upon one group of people by another. And we understand that there is no justification for such behavior, no matter what so-called authorities exist for it to occur.

Selective memory may be creative as well. We like to downgrade our nasty behavior in the past, as in I didn’t mean the insulting thing I said, or I didn’t know how much my behavior would hurt you. And in the opposite direction, we like to embellish our triumphs. We allude to honors we never quite attained, or we take credit for what was a group effort. Self-protection is a big factor in selective memory.

When we live long enough we accumulate lots of memories, and tend to forget some we’d like to keep. So we’ve invented all kinds of aids: scrapbooks, videos, photo albums, journals, diaries, even formal histories. All serve to remind us, basically, of our entire lives. They’re instructive and fun, and we can share them with our kids and friends.

It seems to me that digital photographs, useful and fast as they are, are not as satisfying a way to trigger memories. Holding a photo in our hand, we can gaze at every detail and dwell on the mood of what’s happening in the picture. I think we can more easily estimate the subject’s character, and maybe more accurately. Kids are given a real sense of family when they look at photo albums with their parents and grandparents.

History is such a collection of memories, both personal and national. “History” began, after all, as “his-story,” meaning Christ’s story in human terms. Over time we’ve come to include events like wars and statistics such as population and military victories, but essentially history is still a human story. That’s why we have memories, because if we don’t learn from the past we are doomed to repeat the worst of it.

We can’t change the past, for good or bad, because we’ll have the memories of what really happened then. But we can try to conduct ourselves now and in the future so that our memories will be pleasant. If we don’t, there’s always selective memory to fall back on. Tsk.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)

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