I have never had a great memory.
Names, dates, definitions, facts all glance off the sides of my brain and dissolve in the mist of forgetfulness.
87-year-old Elie Wiesel has dedicated his life and his literary career to the importance of memory. As a survivor of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Wiesel has lived his adult life under the burden of keeping alive the memory of horror.
In his novel The Forgotten, Wiesel tells the story of Jewish concentration camp survivor Elhanan Rosenbaum, an aging man living in the States in the final stages of a disease that is wiping out his memory. The Forgotten is a meditation on the importance of keeping the past alive.
Wiesel describes Elhanan’s plight with powerful poetic words.
Thus did Elhanan helplessly witness his own destruction. Forgetfulness was for him the death not only of knowledge but also of imagination, hence of expectation. Mentally torn, struggling vainly to control his actions, to transform time into consciousness, he submitted himself to constant examinations: What was the name of the man who… What happened on the day when … His reason, still clear, watched over a shrinking, progressively impoverished memory. In his brain a huge black sponge scrambled words and images. Time no longer flowed, but toppled over the edge of a yawning precipice. Overcome by a sense of inevitability, Elhanan decided that the end was approaching. He was losing sight of his landmarks. Forgetfulness was a worse scourge than madness: the sick man is not somewhere else. He is not another, he is no one. Certainly Elhanan hung on; certainly he fought. With pills and potions he resisted, reading all he could on the subject. But, like Moses in the legend, he forgot at night what he had learned in the morning. “We can’t do anything about it, ” the specialist repeated. “Forgive us; but medical science has its limits like everything else.” Elhanan had to accept it: he was slipping down a slope, and at the bottom he would encounter nothingness. (263, 264)
Near the end of the book, Elhanan reflects on his experience of losing his memory.
Sometimes I tell myself, God is cruel, as cruel as the Tempter… Since He has not permitted me to know the answer, why did He reveal the question to me? Why does He insist that this old man die in remorse and doubt? What has He to gain by my loss? What is His goal? Do I myself still have a goal? Is there anything tangible, durable, real left of me at all? …. I have nothing, I am nothing… more than a shadow and less than a man… But what is man deprived of memory? Not even a shadow… (313)
Are we nothing without memory? At the bottom of forgetfulness is there only “nothingness”? Without recall of the past are we “less than a man… Not even a shadow”?
One of the few commandments Jesus gave was, “Do this in remembrance of me”. For a Christian, memory is important. To remember Jesus is to stay awake to the deeper realities of life.
But is memory the essential component of what it means to be human?
I recently visited a woman on her 100th birthday. She is healthy, alert, bright, cheerful, and charming. She has no short-term memory; her long-term memory is garbled and confused. But she appears happy and content living out her life in the fascination of the moment. She has no unresolved longings, no needs or demands that compel her to look beyond the present for some fleeting satisfaction.
I watch my grand-daughter standing in front of the refrigerator door in our kitchen. She arranges and rearranges magnetic animals on the door telling stories about them. She is utterly absorbed in the moment. Like most very young children, she has little recall of past events. Yet, in many ways she is more alive than many adults who are burdened with stories of the past.
There is no question that it is important to remember. History is a powerful classroom. But memory is not the single thing that makes us human. We are human because we bear the gift of life in whatever degree of lucidity is granted to us.
Elhanan’s despair is understandable but does not reflect reality. When Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me”, he was alerting his followers to the reality that we humans are made up of something more than the physical tangible, emotional, psychological realms of existence with which we are so familiar.
As important as memory is, it is not the source of human identity. In our essence we are much greater than any memory. We are much stronger and more real, than the accumulation of past traumas, hurts, or joys. As we rest more deeply in our true identity, we may face the inevitable dulling of our natural faculties with a greater measure of peace.