Ever since I briefly lost my memory during a late-night hockey game with friends in my high school years, I’ve been fascinated with the role and function of memory. In the high school hockey incident, my helmet-less head hit the ice, the lights went out for a minute but my memory was on hiatus for the next 18 hours. It was like some delete button had been hit – I didn’t know who I was, couldn’t recall basic personal information and my only memory of those 18 hours is reconstructed from what others have told me.
Of course, the most important memory question is “why can I never remember where I put the car keys?” but others quickly follow: What is the biology of a memory? Why do some have far keener memories than others? Why do we forget? Does memory change over time, becoming edited along the way (read The Invisible Gorilla for an interesting take on how revisionist our memories might actually be)? What is it like to live without a memory (Read Oliver Sacks The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat for a deeply human and sympathetic look by a doctor at patients with various neurological disorder, but regarding memory especially see “The Lost Mariner”)? Who are we without a memory (try to imagine who you are without the accumulated past of what has happened to you)? What is the power of remembering to forge our identity (are we our history)?
Earlier this summer I read a fun and fascinating book by Josh Foer called Moonwalking with Einstein. It’s about the stunning capacity of the human memory and begins with Foer covering the World Memory Championships (yes there is such a thing) for a magazine article. He’s watching mentalists perform unfathomable feats of memory (last year’s memory champion memorized pi to 50,000 decimal places; other contestants memorize multiple decks of playing cards in minutes). He’s astounded at these feats of remembering and yet is told again and again, “It’s all technique, anyone can do this.” And so he asks one contestant, if anyone can do this, teach me. And the rest of the book is the story of how Josh returns the following year to participate in the American Memory Championships.
The book explores the old practice of memorization using what’s called the memory palace. It’s remarkable how our memories are spatially constructed, as if memory needs a map to structure and retrieve the data we store in this. Foer leads you through the process of using the memory palace and it’s uncanny how it works – in about 30 minutes on plane trip out East I memorized, and can still easily today recall, a bizarre and random list on p. 92-93. Overall, its an interesting read with some good reflections on memory, on a lost skill and what it may cost us in a world of external memories.
Have you ever taken stock of all the biblical injunctions to remember, the premium God places on a healthy memory? Remembering seems to be one of faith’s top survival skills. Because we are created in the flow of time, because God submits himself to this created reality and acts within history, faith rests on memory to continually nourish it. There’s a tendency to become spiritual chronological snobs, insisting on immediate experiences to feed faith when scripture, again and again, calls us to remember, to recognize that we’re part of a story long underway and the only way any of us will understand the story and our place in it, the only way you’ll make sense of today and tomorrow, is by remembering.
Frederick Buechner, a wonderful writer and thoughtful minister, writes about our our experience of God’s saving work in scripture, in the world, in our own lives. He notes:
To remember the past is to see that we are here by grace, that we have survived as a gift … and because we remember, we have this high and holy hope: that what he has done he will continue to do, what he has begun in us and our world, he will in unimaginable ways bring to fullness and fruition. ” (A Room Called Remember).
So don’t forget to remember.