“Remembering is the devil” is one way this enigmatic Norwegian quote is translated into English. Appearing in Henrik Ibsen’s play Peer Gynt, this quote looks at memory from a decidedly negative perspective. When I put this phrase and its translation and who wrote it, one of my friends who like me is deeply interested in history replied with a thoughtful Elie Wiesel quote about the importance of remembering in order to preserve civilization. I happen to believe both quotes, and both sentiments are true, but there is clearly a tension about memory in that it is both a blessing of the utmost importance on the one hand, and also a tremendously dark matter on the other hand. Memory is not a straightforward blessing, nor is it something to be cast off altogether. How are we to deal with this?
Many of the tasks of my life have to deal with the thorny and difficult subject of memory. In my job, for example, it is my task to fill reports with numbers that provide a historical record of sales and phone call numbers and profitability and so on for people, for periods of time, and for campaigns. When I finish this task, I spend much of my free time reading memoirs and histories that are full of memories, some of them the stories of people who overcame the darkness of an evil upbringing to find happiness and success, and others of them the stories of countries and institutions with their patterns of rise and fall, advance and decline. I spend a fair amount of my time singing and performing music, much of it historical in nature, hymns with their own histories, often triggering my own memories, and my own research into where these songs come from and what they mean to me personally. Even when I play games, most of the games I play are historical in nature, and my travels are often related to places of great historical importance of personal memories . Memory is of key importance in the way I live my own life, for better or for worse.
Recently, one of our congregation’s deacons gave a sermon on remembering, and in it he spoke about the way the brain works when it encodes something into long-term memory. Nuerons fire in groups, with layers of meaning associated with a complex of memories firing together, and the more something is brought to mind, the easier it is brought to mind and the more powerful the memory. This can be a good thing or a bad thing. As is my nature, my first thoughts went to the negative side of the ledger. This is a difficult time of year for me, in large part because my father died a decade ago. I was not close to him, no one was, but his death was a personal disaster for me that sent me into a lengthy and dark spell of major depression where my life for a period of about five years became not a question of thriving but a grim battle for survival, where it took conscious effort to continue to slog through life .
In the years that have followed I have often pondered what it is about his death that affected me so. To be sure, for many years my father had stated that he did not expect to live a long life, and being overweight, having a poor diet filled with sweets and fried foods, and, we found out later, an untreated diabetic, to some extent it was a self-fulfilling prophecy, even apart from his brave attempt to wall his emotions down because he did not think himself strong enough to handle them in the harsh light of day in unforgiving company. In some ways, in his crushing isolation and his crippling fears about intimacy, and in his razor-sharp and deeply sardonic wit that made him delightful dinner conversation but somewhat harsh to those who should have been closest to him, I see certain aspects of my own personality. Yet, reflecting upon his life, and in my own deep wounds as the survivor of early childhood incest at the time I was an infant and small toddler, I think what troubled me the deepest was the fact that he never owned up to me what he had done. Even at his funeral, my paternal grandmother trotted out the same line that my father had never hurt me, without me even bringing up the matter, as if even in death it was not possible to face the horror of the truth of my father’s life and to bring it out into the open to be dealt with honestly. And by dying before he could repent, he established a pattern that often comes to mind about why it is so difficult for other people to apologize to me for their wrongs? Do I seem so cold and unforgiving, too intimidating to apologize to? Often I wonder. Remembering is the devil, indeed.
But clearly there is a better side to remembering as well, both in its absence and its presence. Isaiah 43:25-26 says the following: “I, even I, am He who blots out your transgressions for My own sake; And I will not remember your sins. Put me in remembrance; let us contend together; state your case, that you may be acquitted.” Here we see the two sides of remembering and forgetting in the same verses, back to back. We remember God, we call to mind His nature, His gracious behavior with us, His patience and longsuffering, His gentleness, and the blessings we have received from His loving hand, and God in turn shows mercy to us by forgetting our sins and not bringing them to mind, not clubbing us over the head continually with them, as we are wont to do with others. That is a hard thing for us to do as human beings, possibly impossible without the help of God, considering the way that trauma tends to hardwire certain memories in our minds so that they are brought to mind involuntarily, in our nightmares, and when certain events, like people coming up behind us, trigger our panicky and anxious responses. There are some things that are a blessing to remember, and some things that it will be a blessing to forget.
One thing we can look forward to, though, is the time when all of us will be able to enjoy our prefect memory with its simultaneously perfect forgetfulness. We will dwell in the city, the New Jerusalem, and the former evil aspects of life we will no longer call to mind. There will be no more death, no more sorrow, or crying, as John tells us in Revelation 21. We will have an eternity of communion with our Heavenly Father, our Elder Brother Jesus Christ, and our fellow brothers and sisters resurrected with eternal life as part of God’s family, and we will not be reminded of our grievances, nor any longer will the torments and trauma of our lives be brought to mind on a regular basis. In the meantime, though, we have to live our lives in a world where memory, just like everything else in our existence, contains both good and evil, just like we ourselves and everyone else we meet along the serpentine course of our lives.
 See, for example:
 See, for example: