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Bearing the burden of memory pain

By Henry Neufeld, Special to Canadian Mennonite
Sep 24, 2014 | Volume 18, Number 19

We all have some painful memories of things that happened to us. They are stored, encoded, and sometimes retrieved and reworked. There are strained relationships with our parents and siblings; and the hurt or wrong caused us by a teacher, classmate, colleague, boss, lover, spouse, pastor or fellow church member. Recalling and remembering bring back the pain and all the emotions that go with it. And that means the wrong continues to hurt us, even years later.

Can there be an end of memory?

Miroslav Volf is a theology professor at Yale Divinity School, New Haven, Conn., who grew up in communist Yugoslavia under Marshall Tito. The son of a Pentecostal pastor, Volf was granted permission to study at Fuller Seminary in California; he married an American woman and returned to Yugoslavia.

In the early 1980s, while in theological studies in Yugoslavia, he was conscripted into military service. He was subjected to regular interrogation for several reasons: he was a Christian, he had lived in the U.S., and his wife was American and therefore a spy. His fellow soldiers were enlisted to spy on him. His office was bugged and all of his conversations were recorded. The intense and terrifying interrogations, which did not involve physical abuse, sought to have him admit to all kinds of things he had never done.

For decades after his discharge he was unable to banish from his mind the harsh interrogations. It was then he wrote The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World.

What follows is largely based on his book. The End of Memory was born out of Volf’s theological and spiritual quest to discover what, if any, “closure” might be available to him in this life and the next. Is there a way to just forget and move on? And, if so, does that let the man who psychologically scarred him off the hook? Can he forgive his interrogator and still remember what happened?

Of this experience, Volf asks some crucial questions:

  • Should we remember and recall unpleasant experiences?
  • How should we remember?
  • How long should we remember?
  • Is there a correct Christian way of remembering?

As a Christian, he struggles with a common dilemma: Rather than hating an enemy, or ignoring him, how does a wronged person forgive and love that enemy? Is that even possible?

What do we do with our memories?

Memory is fundamental to our well-being. What we say and write is based on memories. Being truthful about what we recall is important. Our memories are prone to distortion. There’s often an unintentional blurring of the facts. Or we simply repress them, sending them out of our mind as quickly as possible.

We don’t always remember accurately. Think of two people who witness a car accident; their accounts will have differing details. Ask your siblings about an event from your childhood and you’ll hear differing details. We all tell our sto-ries from a particular perspective. That’s why we have four gospels and not only one. We need all those perspectives.

We are also prone to embellish our memories, making ourselves look better. Volf writes that he wants to make his interrogator look worse than he was.

What do we do with our memories, especially the negative ones? We need to stop useless historical memories from controlling how we deal with life now. Too often we hold on to old grudges and negative memories, we feed them, we thrive on them, we nurture them and we retell them. When we spend too much time going back into old horror stories, there’s not much room for growth and forgiveness.

Vengeance and resentment, no matter how justified, make forgiveness difficult. This is partly because our thoughts often go in a negative direction. If we can learn to forgive someone, we make room for the future and make peace with the past.

Relegating memories to the periphery

Volf suggests it’s better to move through life with a sense of peace about a wrong that befell us, and then let it fade from our memories, rather than making memories of them the defining centre of our lives. We can integrate the wrongdoing into our life story because we might have gained important insights from the violations we experienced. Maybe we learned something about humanity or about human nature, or maybe we got closer to God.

Volf points out that Christ gives us a new identity, so we no longer see ourselves as wronged or betrayed. But some might keep feeding their resentment. Christians are defined not by what happened, but by the fact that God loves us. We are defined by how God relates to us. We are not held captive by the past. Volf says there might be a time when we allow the memories to slip from our minds, once they have served their purpose.

We remember wrongs suffered, but we are not defined by those events but by our relationships with God and others. The memories might still cause pain, but they don’t define us. We are more than that experience. We don’t need to cling to those memories. God’s presence and love did not erase the memory for Volf, but he was able to relegate it to the periphery of his life.

The impact of wrongdoing affects us in the sense that it changes our view of the world to a place that is no longer safe. Bad things should not happen to good people, but they do. Wrongs done to us can entrap us and make us bitter, resentful and hostile, dragging our spirits down. Sometimes it takes a long time to move beyond that past to be able to look to the future. And sometimes our self-righteous rage at having been hurt produces an appetite for revenge. Then, as victims, we victimize, and that makes us feel good, even if only briefly.

How memories affect happiness

Happiness requires immersion in the present. People who are unhappy tend to dwell on the past, on their memories. They can’t forget or don’t want to forget. But if you put your energies into making someone happy, you’ll need to forget, at least for a little while, any unpleasantness in your relationship. If we dwell on our past, it will be more difficult to attend to the needs of others.

Memories bring with them what is known as “the pain of the irreversible.” We can’t change the past, but when we think of especially difficult or unpleasant situations, we cause ourselves emotional pain by thinking, “I should have done this or that,” or, “I should have said that,” or, more likely, “I should not have said anything.” Yet personal happiness requires not that we forget what happened, or beat ourselves up about what was said or done, but in learning from that experience and focussing on the present.

Memory is important for ‘faith’ful living

The Old Testament injunctions to remember are powerful:

  • “Remember that you were a slave in Egypt” (Deuteronomy 24:18a).
  • For Jews, it is important to remember their redemption from their suffering and mistreatment; this remembering was to change their collective and individual lives: “If a fellow Hebrew, a man or a woman, sells himself to you and serves you six years, in the seventh year you must let him go free . . . do not send him away empty handed. Supply him liberally from your flock, your treasure or your wine cellar. Give him as the Lord your God has blessed you. And then remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you”
    (Deuteronomy 15:12-15a).

Remembering is not only a part of Jewish life, it’s a key part of Christianity. Many churches have communion tables with the inscription, “Do this in remembrance of me.” Our testimonies and confessions of faith all hinge on memory.

But memory is more than a recitation of facts; reciting facts is history. When we celebrate communion, we narrate the death and resurrection of Christ as events in which we are involved, since we have been resurrected to new life. We sustain and continue to tell our sacred memories. Volf suggests that, at the communion table, he brings his interrogator to that table in his mind.

Not all memories are of the past; some are of the future. Remember to turn the lights off when you leave, remember that our church retreat is coming up. And so our communion services are about the past and about the future: about the great feast in eternity.

When we remember our Anabaptist history, it helps to shape our identity and our sense of community, and, by doing so, it helps to shape our future.

In Philippians, Paul says he is forgetting what lies behind and stretching for the goal. In other words, he’s oriented towards the future. Paul itemizes all the things he suffered as a Christian—imprisonment, beatings, shipwrecks, hunger—but he doesn’t dwell on them.

The past must be redeemed, for redemption of the past is one aspect of the Christian vision of salvation. In order to do that:

  • Remember truthfully, learn from the past, remember to help those in need.
  • Remember wrongs so that you can protect sufferers from further injury.
  • Remember truthfully and rightly, so you can act justly.

Henry Neufeld attends Point Grey Inter-Mennonite Fellowship in Vancouver.

--Posted Sept. 24, 2014

For reflection and group discussion, go to the discussion questions related to this article.

Henry Neufeld


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