Memory brings light and darkness. It brings light by evoking images of joy, happiness, and intimacy. But there is a dark side to memory. It accuses, suffocates, and overwhelms us. Between light and darkness floats a murky cloud of unsure or false memory.
The role that memory plays in our lives is nothing less than comprehensive. It guides you in the morning to make breakfast, to drive, to work. It helps you react to life (I remember that heat is hot, so I don’t touch the pan). Memory forms our identity. We are who we remember ourselves to be, whether that is a Father (I have children whom I love) or a business person (I run a business).
Memory must be ours or we have no identity nor could we function normally in life. And yet memory bears a sword. It cuts or protects. It brings light or darkness. It brings clarity or cloudiness.
And this cloudiness or vagary of memory creates a particular problem for us. Can we trust our memory?
Are We Good?
Our desires bias our memories. We remember our good deeds, not our bad deeds. And we sometimes make our okay deeds heroic. Like a story that is told a hundred times and embellished, our internal monologue creates a heroic legend where only a mediocre deed occurred.
Are We Bad?
But some of us suffer from melancholy, and so we interpret the past in the worst light possible. “Did I really say that? What will they think?” Our memory of the event accuses or excuses us. In this sense, memory and conscience overlap.
Sometimes the thing that we loved early in life we come to regret later in life. So the memories of our youth haunt us. But even these might be hard to trust. You may have tricked your memory into believing that you committed dark acts because you rejoiced in these acts as a youth. Can you trust your memory here?
I think there is grace in the vagaries of memory. There is a certain kind of grace in a biased memory. We can be sure that we were bad, but perhaps we cannot trust our memories in all the specific ills that we participated in.
How Memory Sticks
If memory is biased and murky, how can we make memory stick? Some memories can stick and be relatively unbiased. Psychologists have studied memory and found that memories around special or unique events stick better than mundane ones. Other factors are at play here. But I think it’s sufficient for us to say that: major events stick, and we remember them vividly. And if other people saw the same event, it’s less likely that we can trick ourselves into believing something false.
But I think we can do better.
We can do better by engaging in theological memory. What I mean is that by knowing God who is good, holy, and love, you can see yourself truly. Knowing God enlightens the cloud of memory to see ourselves and our experiences with clarity.
And this means that when you remember, your biases (to show yourself better than you are or worse) will have less of influence. You see yourself in light of the divine. And this also frees you to understand your past, even if you cannot trust the details of your memory.
You are free from regret because God is love, and he has loved you perfectly. You are free from guilt, for there is no guilt for those who are in Christ Jesus. You are free from having to remember what you have done rightly or wrongly because God’s grace is freely given apart from your deeds. You are given the gift of letting the past’s tyranny over you cease. It’s there but its power is broken.
Theological memory also tells you that you are not as good as you might think. And that’s okay. You need to know yourself to know where you need to get to. False appraisals of self, based on biased memory, will get you nowhere but to self-delusion. And if freeing yourself from the burden of self-merit seems worrisome, remember that grace forgives not merit. And yet the grace of forgiveness, that grace which erodes your wall of moral confidence will train you to build an even stronger wall of virtue, one based on God’s nature and forgiveness.
So memory might bring light or darkness or something in between. But knowing God puts memory in its place. It is freeing and binding. It frees from our biased memory and binds us to God-biased memory. And while this memory may not always stick, it will at least be a true memory even if the details fade due to the sands of time.