I do not have a good memory.
That’s probably far too gentle a way to put it. My memory is downright deplorable, to be honest. Some may falsely observe this as “selective memory”, but I assert that I simply have below average recall in every aspect of the word. It’s not the caliber of forgetfulness where one simply forgets to take out the trash or out the toilet seat down. It’s much worse than that.
There are few things as alarming as going back to a familiar place and hearing stories told to you about things you did, events you participated in, and having absolutely no recollection of them taking place whatsoever. This would make a little more sense if I had been a raging alcoholic during my younger years, but the truth is I never had the monetary opulence for such a lifestyle. Yes sir, every imprudent and senseless decision I’ve ever made in my life, I’ve made completely sober.
But memory, for me, is the sweet treasure of life that we are blessed with at the end of every day and every season. It is what reminds us of how far we’ve come and the people we’ve been privileged to share in that story with.
I remember when my computer crashed (the first time) while I was in college, and everything from my hard drive was lost. Every project, paper, and email was completely lost. I even lost all 38 gigs of music that was stored on there as well. I had to retake three classes as a result of this computer malfunction and my lack of file back-up plan. But what saddened me the most about this calamity was all of the pictures that I lost. Those pictures weren’t just great opportunities to tag friends on Facebook, they carried deep and powerful memories for me -memories I am often inclined to forget.
And I find that absolutely fascinating. That I can desire with all my will to hold on to certain memories, but the reality of it all is that I am likely to forget them at some point in my life. No matter how important those people are, or those times were, I will forget. I am seemingly powerless to stop it at times, and it is astonishing to me our vulnerability in our effort to oppose that reality.
I heard an interview today with a psychologist named Alan Dienstag who works specifically with people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. He describes these difficult times in the lives of those who suffer from this disease as a time to “give memories away” rather than losing them. In a country where Alzheimer’s effects more than one in eight Americans over the age of 65, the fear of being inflicted with this burdensome disease is vivid. In fact, one U.S. survey revealed that Americans said that they fear Alzheimer’s more than heart failure or stroke.
But Dienstag also recounted a number of beautiful stories of his time with these patients that bring to light so many of the unspoken elements of the disease known as “the great unlearning.”
One such instance involved a patient of his named Anne. As Anne slowly fell deeper and deeper into this disease, she could no longer participate in the conversation of her writing group, and eventually had to leave the group all together. Her husband was incredibly devoted to her and insisted that she still stay connected with Alan, even though she could no longer take part in the writing groups that he had developed. She eventually would simply come into his office and wander around, observing the birds outside the window as she meandered.
One day Alan informed Anne that he was going to go on a short vacation to some coast and wouldn’t be around for a week or so. Because he knew that she loved the beach, he asked her “What do you love about the beach, Anne?”. She began staring off into the distance and Alan assumed that she could no longer even answer questions as simple as that one. But finally she spoke up and said “There is some kind of music there”.
Alan recalls the deep sense of awe in her eyes as she described the great mystery of the sea. That sense of wonder and awe is something we often forget to acknowledge even exists, and yet Anne, with all of the struggles of her condition, was able to convey the elusive beauty of the sea in her own uniquely profound way, ailments and all.
He recalled a different time when he had a patient with accelerated Alzheimer’s disease, and a wife that was struggling to cope with the heartbreaking reality of it all. He said that she would come in day after day and ask her husband “Do you know who I am?” only to be met with the heart wrenching response of unfamiliarity. This went on for days and days until one day she came in and asked him the question she asked him every day, and he responded “I don’t know you, but I love you.”
How fascinating is it that this man, despite the crippling nature of his disease, still knew what it was that his wife so desperately needed to hear? That almost in contempt of the very nature of this disease, a man can look at his wife, making no real cognitive connection to who she is, and still say “I love you.”
Our memory is a miracle. The truth of the matter is that we really don’t notice it until it doesn’t work for us, but the fact that we can relive instances and share past stories is nothing short of a miracle. Recent studies even support the idea that to recall a memory is a creative act in and of itself because no memory is ever stored in one location in our brain. It is scattered, and we pull it all together to form a cohesive though. It is truly a miracle.
As I thought about my own inclination to forget things both large and small, I thought of this passage:
“the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” (John 14:26)
It’s like God knew that we would be prone to forget. To not only forget where we came from, but also the promises He has given us- promises of healing, restoration, and justice. I know in my own life there have been countless times where I felt abandoned, scared, and even betrayed, and yet God’s Spirit is there, not necessarily to smooth everything over, or to pat our heads and tell us it’s okay, but to remind us of what we already know to be true. To reset the compass by which we live. To point us back to the truth we’ve already been given because, well, we forget.
At one point during this interview the host Krista Tippett even shared some of her own stories from working with patients inflicted with Alzheimer’s disease. She told of numerous cases where individuals could not string together a single cohesive sentence, but at certain instances and in certain company could perfectly recite a a favorite hymn or Psalm.
How moving is a testimony like that? That a person could have the words of scripture so ingrained in who they are that it transcends even the most difficult of physical boundaries. This type of radical resilience is what gives me hope for a humanity that often appears to be stricken with apathy, carelessness, and a love for the newest trends. It’s a sort of muscle memory that can carry out a task even though all the elements of one’s surroundings say that it’s impossible.
It is here that we have the opportunity to develop a deep sense of reverence for the stunning and sacred acts of tradition and rituals that are our bloodline. That by partaking, we are not fulfilling some contemporary obligation, but echoing in history what our brothers and sisters hundred and thousands of years before us have participated in. We revive the memory of the saints by our diligence to committing ourselves to the reality of Christ’s work in us today. We say to a world obsessed with the fastest, biggest, and most current that even if our minds begin to decay, our hearts will beat to the rhythm of his insurrection.
So what truly endures? Names? Church buildings? Recognition itself? Or perhaps it’s the love that binds us together in both grace and truth, in the sacred balance of our identity.
The interview ended with an excerpt from a stunning poem I tracked down written by Sean Nevin. It’s entitled “Oblivion Gate” and was written from the perspective of Song of Solomon 3:1
By night on my bed I sought him whom my soul loveth:
I sought him, but I found him not.
—Song of Solomon 3:1
The moon is the rice-paper lantern left burning in the garden
Long after the last house light is put down.
Wind sweeps its circles across the empty lawn and back again.
All night I search you for signs of recognition— Solomon? Solomon?
I float your name out into the darkness: a word, a flame.
A silver prayer kite rising, rice paper, balsa, twine for the rigging, remember this.