Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Misty Water-Colored and Other Types of Memories

By Roy Ciampa, PhD
Associate Professor of New Testament

When I was an infant I swallowed an open safety pin. It slid down my throat and made its way into my stomach. Through surgery the doctor cut into my stomach and removed it. The size of the scar on my stomach when I was an infant was quite small. But over the years that scar has grown larger, so that it is now about six inches long. Emotional scars can grow larger over time as well.
Only recently have I discovered Miroslav Volf’s book, The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2006). I highly recommend this book for anyone involved in pastoral or other kinds of counseling. In the book he explores the intersection between memory and identity – the extent to which our identities are formed by our memories and the extent to which we shape our memories so that they do not consist of raw objective experiential data:
[W]hat exactly is the relationship between memory and identity? Let’s accept for the moment that we are to a significant degree what we and others remember about us. Don’t we remember about ourselves many intensely discordant actions, feelings, and experiences – betrayals and fidelity, pain and delight, hatred and love, cowardice and heroism – as well as thousands of bland moments unworthy of note? The memory that helps make us up is a veritable patchwork quilt stitched together from the ever-growing mountain of discrete, multicolored memories. What will be stitched into the quilt and what will be discarded, or what will feature prominently on that quilt and what will form a background, will depend greatly on how we sew our memories together and how others – from those who are closest to us all the way to our culture as a whole – sew them together for us. We are not just shaped by memories; we ourselves shape the memories that shape us.
And since we do so, the consequences are significant; for because we shape our memories, our identities cannot consist simply in what we remember. The question of how we remember also comes into play. Because we can react to our memories and shape them, we are larger than our memories. If our reactions to our memories were determined simply by the memories themselves, then we would be slaves of the past. But unless we have been severely damaged and are in desperate need of healing, we have a measure of freedom with regard to our memories. To the extent that we are psychologically healthy, our identities will consist largely in our free responses to our memories, not just in the memories themselves. (page 25).
He goes on to explore ways in which our memories become distorted and we may unconsciously shape our memories in ways that tend to vindicate our roles in certain situations and remember the “villains” in our interpreted experiences as worse than they actually are or were. I have since learned that there is a whole interdisciplinary field called “Memory Studies” which brings together historians, ethnographers, sociologists, social psychologists, experts in comparative literature, and others to study the way that personal, social and institutional memories are formed, shaped and distorted and how they impact the ways people act and interact. The University of Warwick has even established a Centre for Memory Studies, which brings together people from various academic fields to study and talk about how memory shapes individuals and communities both for good and for ill. Even more recently l was discussing the subject with someone who has studied and practiced “magic” for many years, and he told me that magicians are fully aware of the inaccuracies of our memories and plant certain interpretations of what they do in their audience’s mind to leave distorted versions of their audience’s memories of their performances. This leads people to tell their friends and neighbors things about the performance that aren’t quite true (“He never touched the deck of cards!”; “We shuffled the deck ourselves!”).
The intentional and unintentional grooming of our memories shapes our understanding of and relationship with God and with others and the world around us. And it helps explain how spiritual and emotional scars can grow larger with time just as the physical scar over my stomach has done the same. It can also help us understand how some of our memories become, as Barbara Streisand has sung, “misty water-colored memories”: like water colored paintings they may have a close relationship with reality but they inevitably reflect interpretation in which some details are left out and others are highlighted. Barbara is right to ask: “Can it be that it was all so simple [or unfair, or perfect, or unjust, or innocent] then? Or has time rewritten every line?”
The Bible has a lot to say about what and how we should remember, as a simple search for various forms of the words for remembering would demonstrate. In his book Volf discusses his own memories of being interrogated and tormented for his personal views while a member of the Yugoslavian army and he later comes back to the subject to apply what he might learn from Israel’s own way of remembering:
To return to my own experience in the Yugoslavian army, I can view myself primarily as a person who was terrorized by powerful people against whom I was helpless and whose intensions I could not discern. Or I can see myself primarily as a person who, after some suffering, has been delivered by God and given a new life, somewhat like the ancient Israelites, who in their sacred writings saw themselves not primarily as those who suffered in Egypt but as those who were delivered by Yahweh. I can be angry about suffering. I can be thankful for deliverance. I can be both. I can also let that year of suffering recede somewhere into a distant background and stretch myself toward the future….” (page 26)
There is much more to be gained from Volf’s book. My prayer is that we may learn to remember rightly – to remember correctly – as we learn to watch for our natural tendency to distort our memories in ways that exonerate (or possibly pile excessive amounts of guilt on) ourselves and that portray our perceived oppressors as greater villains than they actually were, and that God may be glorified as his grace, goodness and mercy loom ever larger in our minds as we fully recognize his role as the one who redeems our lives through our gracious Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

No comments:

Post a Comment