A reflection on memory

As we age, the raw material of our lives, in the form of memory, accumulate and unfurls a vast landscape for our exploration. The young have so little landscape to traverse since they have experienced fewer life events – whether good or bad. They have risked less, lost less, suffered less, and they have made fewer bitter mistakes – while also gaining fewer sweet victories.

In my late fifties, I am amazed at how much sheer pleasure results from the simple act of recalling and savouring the ephemera of these accumulating and rich memories. I am almost always surprised by their dynamism, their ability to elicit thankfulness, joy, satisfaction, tears, and even an unexpected surge of adrenalin. This simple pondering of distant events yields a surprising result beyond that of pure physical pleasures. In such memorial reflection, it is as if the soul were activated and aroused when it for a moment steps aside from time-as-the-now-and-present, into the unbound Always. The gaps between the event in a time horizon and its impact appear unrelated. With the aid of memory, events from three decades prior can still wrench the heart and mind and sear upon them new layers of understanding.

In the grip of this sweet suspension, this glorious anaphora, one may notice that almost all events – good or bad – have now begun to take on a certain cast. As when the bleak ruins of a decaying and abandoned city glows with the sheen of a late afternoon sun, these memories now shine forth with a new light, illumined by a new sun of understanding.

Perhaps distance and objectivity reveal our tendency to not see clearly in any particular moment what is actually going on in our lives. In living each day we are often bound to a certain myopia, and only released to see clearly when the blessing of new perspective arrives blissfully as if washed ashore again by the passage of time. Years soon pass, and as we gently tug the thin strand of these memories we often notice that they have been spun into a golden thread which feels of a much rarer and more precious character than what we experienced in the first instance. It is as if the loss and pain we recall now arrives again but with a sheen we don’t recall, in which the wisdom of distance from the event unfurls upon our mind a more true and complete understanding. This new vision allows us to unravel the puzzle of meaning, suffering, joy, loss and the like. We are then often free to see the shining gem of purpose and good that was always present but made opaque in the midst of the storm of life, hidden from our view at that moment by frailty, inattention, fear, or confusion. In even remembering the good and happy times, a deeper sense of significance and thankfulness usually arrives with the memory.

Is this a sweet hint of what our minds may find to do in heaven? When we are finally free from physical constraints, and are lit by the light and mercy of God, perhaps we can ponder our life lived, the ones we lived it with, and finally posses a true understanding. Might we then see clearly the wise and compassionate hand of God formerly obscured by the temporal veil? Will we there re-encounter – yet with pure and perfect understanding – the millions of moments of our life with a new wisdom which soon yields to worship ? Might we also find that our souls unfold like a young bud into the flowering array a thankfulness and awe of what our Lord was doing that we could not see while we were bound and blind in our flesh.

Pondering this idea, when I look forward now it may be more likely that I can in some imperfect way peer into the rough patches of life with a new hope. When I remember that this present disappointment will also later yield yet a sweet memory and deeper understanding as I traverse this dark but temporary path.