This morning’s preacher worked from Philippians 3 and urged us to “press on.” In his message he used a “preacher story” about a man who was faced with a major medical crisis. If he had the risky surgery, he might lose his sight. If he didn’t have the surgery, he could lose his memory. Which would he choose>as told in the story, he chose the side of sight. “I’d rather see where I’m going than remember where I’ve been.
I understand this point. I like to know where I’m going. Picky person that I am, however, I’m not happy with the minimization of the role of memory. In fact, I don’t think we can adequately understand where we’re going – or even that we’re going – without memory.
Let’s try the real world for a moment. I’ve known many people throughout the years who faced the reality of losing their memory – usually through some form of dementia, and others who have faced the reality of losing their sight. Unlike the story, they weren’t faced with an either/or decision. But that’s not the point. As a friend – and son (and grandson) – of people who have lost their memory, I know that that loss is more than a simple “I don’t remember the events of my life.” The loss of memory is a loss of relationship and identity. With dementia people lose their families – even when those families are still around them. They lose the memory not just of complex things like the failures and losses of life, but of the simple tasks we take for granted like walking and eating. Memory matters.
Let’s suppose that sight is to be most valued because we want to see where we’re going. We want to be future-oriented rather than past-oriented. That’s a good idea. We live into the future. But where are we going? Is my intention to go to a particular place or to achieve a particular goal possible without the memory of those intentions? Without the memory of the skills necessary to fulfill those intentions?
Doubtless there are elements of our past we’d rather not remember. Some of these elements were inflicted on us by others, some were self-inflicted. Some come with great pain and sadness. Some damaged us deeply. Assuming, for the moment, that losing the memory of those events will also erase the effects of those events, such a loss of memory sounds like a good thing. But I’d suggest it’s not wholly good. At least some of the things we’ve suffered have made us stronger and better (no, I’m not going to argue for the silly cliché that “Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger”). We’ve learned from what has happened to us and from what we’ve done. What we’ve learned helps us understand what we’re seeing ahead and can aid our discernment of where we’re going in the future. Without the memory that a particular action leads to pain or disaster we might be doomed to experience it over and over.
So which would I choose, if I had to give up memory or sight? If I were absolutely forced to choose – and I’d rather not be – I’d choose to give up sight. I love my sight. I love reading and experiencing visual beauty. I love being able to navigate the world for myself, whether by walking or driving. But consider that little phrase, “for myself.” I believe I would be ahead in life if my memory were intact but I had to rely on others to help me see. I know the other situation. When my dad could no longer remember who we were, when he and others I love could no longer even remember who they themselves were, we who loved them could remember. That’s the light in the darkness, the good news in the midst of the loss of memory. I might not remember myself any longer, but I am remembered. People know me even when I no longer no myself. And when all those who know me fall away, God remains. Ultimately then, my identity doesn’t lie in my knowledge of myself, important and lovely as that is. Neither does it lie in my being known by other people. My identity finally, and most blessedly, lies in being known by God. That’s the kind of knowledge that will hold me through eternity. It’s in eternity with Jesus that I will not only come to know as I am known, but also to see as I am seen. I will see myself, others, and God in a way that makes even my current (mostly adequate) sight seem like blindness.