We humans are fascinating creatures. Our capacity to remember both the good and the ill from our past, exerts a powerful influence on the course of our future.
I’ve been reflecting on this contrast since our lectionary readings from worship this past Sunday. (I’ll note the particular passage that triggered my thoughts in a moment.)
The question I’ve pondered is whether good memories are more powerful than bad memories. By bad, I’m not referring to horrific experiences which our minds sometimes actively suppress or bury.
I’m thinking of unpleasant, disappointing memories. Things that we regret having happened, either to us, or because of us.
When I use the word “powerful” in my question, I’m referring to the ability of a given memory to continue actively impacting our lives.
In too many lives, it seems the joy and light emanating from positive recollections is often shaded or eclipsed by the clouds of painful memories.
Perhaps our lives would be happier if we consciously spent time recalling good experiences, and taught ourselves to reject – rather than dwell upon – negative thoughts when they force their way onto the stage?
C.S. Lewis provides a curious insight into the nature of memories. Their overarching essence often seem to magnify as time passes. Listen to his words, penned after a vacation in 1921, in which he describes how the joyful memories will grow ever sharper as they are recalled in the future.
I still feel that the real value of such a holiday is still to come, in the images and ideas which we have put down to mature in the cellarage of our brains, thence to come up with a continually improving bouquet.
Already the hills are getting higher, the grass greener, and the sea bluer than they really were; and thanks to the deceptive working of happy memory our poorest stopping places will become haunts of impossible pleasure and Epicurean repast.
Sadly, though, even glorious memories can sometimes fade away. This is the grimmest tragedy of many forms of dementia.
Memory in the Chronicles
C.S. Lewis does some curious things with memory in his Chronicles of Narnia. While the Pevensie children grow to adulthood reigning over Narnia, they end up forgetting about their earlier lives. Only when they stumble upon the Lamp-post, do they recall the land of their birth.
“By the Lion’s Mane, a strange device,” said King Peter, “to set a lantern here where the trees cluster so thick about it and so high above it that if it were lit it should give light to no man!”
So these Kings and Queens entered the thicket, and before they had gone a score of paces they all remembered that the thing they had seen was called a lamp-post, and before they had gone twenty more they noticed that they were making their way not through branches but through coats.
And next moment they all came tumbling out of a wardrobe door into the empty room, and they were no longer Kings and Queens in their hunting array but just Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy in their old clothes.
It was the same day and the same hour of the day on which they had all gone into the wardrobe to hide. Mrs. Macready and the visitors were still talking . . . (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe).
In Prince Caspian, a wise advisor, Doctor Cornelius, secretly informs the heir to the Narnian throne that the old stories were not simply myths. The evil Telmarines had actively labored to erase all memory of Narnia’s true nature.
“Listen,” said the Doctor. “All you have heard about Old Narnia is true. It is not the land of Men. It is the country of Aslan, the country of the Waking Trees and Visible Naiads, of Fauns and Satyrs, of Dwarfs and Giants, of the gods and the Centaurs, of Talking Beasts. It was against these that the first Caspian fought.
It is you Telmarines who silenced the beasts and the trees and the fountains, and who killed and drove away the Dwarfs and Fauns, and are now trying to cover up even the memory of them. The King does not allow them to be spoken of.”
I find the following description of a renewed memory particularly picturesque. It takes place after the Pevensie children return to Narnia years after their initial visit.
Everyone except Lucy went to sleep at once. Lucy, being far less tired, found it hard to get comfortable. Also, she had forgotten till now that all Dwarfs snore. She knew that one of the best ways of getting to sleep is to stop trying, so she opened her eyes.
Through a gap in the bracken and branches she could just see a patch of water in the Creek and the sky above it. Then, with a thrill of memory, she saw again, after all those years, the bright Narnian stars. She had once known them better than the stars of our own world, because as a Queen in Narnia she had gone to bed much later than as a child in England.
And there they were – at least, three of the summer constellations could be seen from where she lay: the Ship, the Hammer, and the Leopard. “Dear old Leopard,” she murmured happily to herself (Prince Caspian)
Forgetting the Past
Every one of us has made mistakes. And far too often we allow those poor decisions and choices to haunt us the rest of our lives. That delights the Devil, one of whose titles is Accuser.
He wants us mired in the past, thinking there is no way we could ever earn God’s love.
The simple fact is that we don’t earn our Creator’s love. It’s a free gift. It is pure grace, and utterly unmerited.
Once we have confessed our sins, God washes them away and cleanses us from all unrighteousness.
To emphasize how God no longer holds our past sins against us, consider some of the ways he expresses his capacity to permanently forgive our confessed sins.
He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities… so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us (Psalm 103).
Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression..? You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea. (Micah 7:18-19).
And now, for the verse which inspired my thoughts. It struck me as particularly helpful for our Christian lives, given the fact that God does not keep a permanent record of our sins. Wouldn’t our lives be better if we followed the Lord’s example?
Not that I… am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own… one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:12-14).
“Forgetting what lies behind,” our past failings which have been forgiven, liberates us to live the life to which God calls us.
That’s seldom easy to do, but knowing how “far [God] removes our transgressions from us,” makes that possibility much more likely. Let us press on.
12 thoughts on “Good & Bad Memories”
Oh my goodness, feeling so overwhelmed right now by a flood of good memories. So grateful to God! But by grace I march on. So timeous for me, Rob, many thanks!
That’s the type of flood we would all like to experience more often!
Thanks for the Augustine quote, I found it most encouraging re re-calling the past.
So much wisdom available to us in the writings of the early Church.
Yes, yes. We need a renewal of the mind.
Yes, a renewal of the mind… and, always, divine mercy.
I love this, and I think it is true (is it possible to love anything but the truth?) that memories can be enriched by the passage of time. But I think it also demands something from us: namely, to tend to them and to cultivate them like gardeners. Or, to alter the metaphor slightly, the passage of time brings rain to water those future flowers, but the sun they require they must receive from the light our attention.
Very eloquently expressed. Your metaphor rings very true with me.
As for the possibility of loving things that aren’t true… that’s an intriguing philosophical question.
My initial response would be “yes,” since there is abundant evidence that people are passionate about various lies.
However, if the object is an untruth, isn’t the “love” for it contaminated or diluted by connection to a falsehood? I think that case could be made.
This has great relevance for abuse victims. Thank you.
An astute observation I had not considered. Thank you, Anna.
Excellent, Rob. You wove Lewis, Gospel, and an an interesting philosophical question into a single post.
I felt badly for my mother that I retained more negative childhood memories than positive, and developed a theory that the negative ones made more of a lasting impact. Your question and my counselor’s (therapist) insistence seem more correct, however: that we’ve trained ourselves to look for the bad.
Thanks for sharing your personal experience. I hope your increased awareness has freed you from some of the residue of your past disappointments.