Cogito ergo sum, Descartes famously said, but sometimes I think recordor ergo sum might be more accurate. “I remember, therefore I am.” I have a sense that everything—every person, place, event, moment—is locked in our brains somewhere, whether we are conscious of it or not.
My father handed me a sheaf of papers the other day that he’d found when cleaning out a long neglected drawer. The papers were my report cards from almost 50 years ago, along with the results of an achievement test taken in 1969. The “Pupil Profile Report” affirmed my self-perception of having been a bright boy…except for one part that plunged like the Dow Jones on a bad day. Thirty-second percentile in grammatical usage? What in world was up with that?
A day later a memory came flooding back. I suddenly could see my sixth grade classroom and hear my teacher’s voice. She was saying we were out of time, but not to worry about it, because the purpose of this test was to measure the school and not ourselves, and our scores on the test didn’t mean anything. (What a far cry from today’s world!)
In one sense I had forgotten all about this test, but in another sense I had never forgotten about it, because when I looked at the results, it all came back. The same thing happened with the report cards—seeing the names of long forgotten teachers and classes brought all sorts of memories back.
Frederick Buechner once had a dream that he stayed in a lovely hotel room but was unable to book it again because he had forgotten the room’s name. The name of the room, the hotel clerk told him, was “Remember.”
Remember is a blessed room—a room of peace and hope and healing. It’s all there—the terrible things we’ve done but also the words of forgiveness and kindness we’ve received. In The Mother of All Questions, Rebecca Solnit says the stories we tell ourselves “can be both prison and the crowbar to break open the door of that prison.”
That’s another way of talking about memory. Who can say why or how it works as it does? Maybe the best image is that of an iceberg—we only keep so much of it on the surface at one time, but it’s all there.
When John Swinton, perhaps the foremost theologian on disability in the world today, visited Western Theological Seminary in May, he showed this remarkable video (see below) of an Alzheimer’s patient. The video brought to mind a similar moment with my mother, four years after her Alzheimer’s diagnosis. By this point, she no longer knew the names of her family members nor remembered that the man she lived with was her husband. In the midst of that fog, one afternoon I turned to her and started singing “Amazing Grace.” She astonished me by singing every word of each verse with me. I followed that with “Jesus Loves Me,” and again she knew every word. I was feeling overcome with emotion, but my smart-aleck brother, intent on proving this wasn’t just a religious phenomenon, started in on “Moon River,” and she sang “Wider than a mile, I’m crossing you in style…”
Even when we give no outward sign of remembering a blessed thing, it’s still there. And ultimately, as we age, and memory becomes more and more of a challenge, what really matters is not so much what we remember but who remembers us.
Our value in this hyper-cognitive world doesn’t come because we remember, but because we are remembered. Certainly we hope in a material way our families remember us as we age. More than that, Christian hope is in God’s memory. The scripture says “God remembered Noah,” “God remembered Abraham,” “God remembered Rachel,” and “God remembered Hannah.” He remembers you and me, too. We are remembered. Therefore, we are.