If there was nothing to remember

I quite enjoy getting older. Amongst most people I know this seems a bit against the grain. Getting old is something to fear and not to talk about. Something to (ludicrously really…) avoid at all costs.

Perhaps it is the fact I still look about 16 years old, the fact that I await puberty and facial hair to make it’s appearance, the fact that my basal metabolic rate keeps me as a skinny wee bugger despite the beer and burgers (have to say I’m glad of the last one…)

There will come a time when I start forgetting things, that I stop getting smarter, and more importantly when I can’t run or climb trees. That will be a day to lament. But not yet.

As animals, we’re on the down slope from our late teens, on virtually every level, from nephrons to neurons, we’re on a (hopefully slow) gradual decline.

The thing that does bother me about getting older is memory.

There was a character called Brutha in a Terry Pratchet book i read as a kid (Small Gods) who had the odd talent of an eidetic memory. He just remembered things. Everywhere he’d ever been, everything he’d ever read. It was just there in front of his eyes when it needed recalled. He was always incredulous when other people said to him that they didn’t remember, as he just couldn’t quite grasp the concept of non-remembrance.

Now I have nowhere near a memory to that degree but I have a tendency to remember an awful lot of things. Mainly this is at work in patients. If I have seen someone before in work, I will remember where I have seen them and in which cubicle and what was wrong with them – though I will probably forgotten how I screwed up the diagnosis or something but maybe that’s just a selective memory.

Patients are how I remember medicine. They’re like a hook to hang your coat on. I only know lots about HSV type I encephalitis because of the guy we had in the corner bed of the unit in NZ who ended up as a bit of vegetable because of it. I remember his name, his wife, what they both did for a living, the son who was a dentist who I spoke to on the phone, where the lesions where on his MRI, the fact that the first PCR was negative, and the way he waved with a tiny bend at the right wrist cause nothing else in his arm worked.

I cannot forget this. Not that I have sat down and tried. If I’m honest I’ve probably done the opposite. I have nurtured the memory. So that I will get it right if I see it again. If you’ve seen the bit in Heat where DeNiro and Pacino have the cup of coffee, and Pacino talks about all the dead people from the murders then you’ll get what I mean.

I have hundred of images, all arranged like little movies in my head, of all the patients I’ve ever seen (well a substantial proportion anyhow). I remember scans and faces and places better than their names but I remember them. I remember the dead ones better than the ones who got better.

I have kept a journal since I was 16 (when I first found unrequited love and my Dad found a sister he’d never known existed – true story…) and if I read it I will have a memory for every day.

I used to get worried when I was younger that at some point I would have gone through so many new experiences and new memories that perhaps my head might explode when it reached some pre-defined bursting point. Or have a “break-down” which was what grown ups used to call what happened to people who had trouble with their “nerves”.  Neither appears to have happened yet. And I need no one to facetiously point out that it is because I have an exceptionally big head.

In Life After GOD, one of the characters gets scared in his mid-twenties crisis, mainly because he fears that once you’ve been through your teenage years and fallen in love that there won’t be any new experiences.

What I’ve found is that there still are plenty of new experiences (though driving the volvo will never give me the same thrill I had driving my 950cc white 205 the day I passed my driving test), though these are increasingly displaced by memories. And all the new experiences you come to along the way are affected by same memories.

Even more disappointingly I have discovered that my memory has a predisposition towards pain, misery and suffering. I find it hard to look at a happy toddler and not picture a hospital bed some 70 years in the future.

This has perhaps not done me any favours when it came to recently losing my Dad.

[Well it’s not that I lost him, I’m pretty sure he’s still in that big hole we dug in the graveyard, we did put an awful lot of dirt on top just to make sure… Though I have lost one parent, I do still have one left, losing two would just be careless…

OK so I’m taking the piss out of death, partly because, as a family we’re again somewhat predisposed to do that, but perhaps more that if Christians can’t take the piss out of death then who can? (i think i want Spike Milligan’s “i told you i was ill” on my grave…)]

Sorry, back to the main thread. I think there is one somewhere.

The problem is that I remember everything. I wake up every day remembering all this stuff that happened. And I will carry it around with me for the rest of my life.

And this is nothing to do with how you deal or process the memory – an important issue in itself – I hold no anger or doubt or bitterness in my heart. I just have the memory.  And how do I deal with that?

In the Great Divorce, it goes on about how we can’t expect to take anything of Hell into Heaven. It just won’t let us. And it has this wonderful bit in it when it says

that heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory… and that is why at the end of all things, when the sun rises here and the twilight turns to  blackness down there, the blessed will say “we have never lived anywhere except in heaven…”

Volf goes a step further in talking about the non-remembrance and even the forgetting of memory, that is required for the process of reconciliation (both of us to GOD and us to each other). With the obvious backing that GOD remembers our sins no more and hinted at in Revelation (quoting Isaiah) as “the first things have passed away“.

He talks of GOD remembering our sins for the purpose of forgetting them. Leading us to do the same he states:

…forgetting the suffering is better than remembering it, because wholeness is better than brokenness, the communion of love better than the distance of suspicion, harmony better than disharmony. We remember now in order that we may forget then; and we will forget then in order that we may love without reservation…

Not that he expects us to achieve all this before the dawn of the new age, but it at least should give us the right direction to walk towards.

It strikes me as it does the character in the great divorce following MacDonald’s words about heaven working backwards:

is that not very hard, Sir?

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13 Responses to “If there was nothing to remember”


  1. 1 Skeeno May 6, 2009 at 2:25 pm

    Happy (belated) Birthday to you,
    Happy (belated) Birthday to you.
    Happy (belated) Birthday dear Nelly,
    Happy (belated) Birthday to you!!!!!

    For he’s a jolly good (blogging) fellow,
    For he’s a jolly good (blogging) fellow,
    For he’s a jolly good (blogging) fellow…
    Aaaand so say all of us!

    Is bracket-based humour known as ‘parenthetical’? It should be…

    C.

  2. 2 Nelly And I May 6, 2009 at 6:32 pm

    a little off topic but nice…

  3. 3 Skeeno May 8, 2009 at 3:52 pm

    I guess I should’ve read the blog first…

  4. 4 FF May 9, 2009 at 10:15 am

    Interesting post. Hey, if you’re bored this weekend, I would like to challenge you to describe the synopsis of Exclusion and Embrace in 500 words or less. I always found Volf’s writing really hard to access… is the main thread that forgiveness is an internal change, regardless of reciprocation, ie it’s actually unconditional? And how exactly does one come to a point of ‘not remembering’…?

    (You could just tell me to stop being so darn lazy and read something longer than an article in the Sunday Observer for a change).

  5. 5 Nelly And I May 9, 2009 at 7:08 pm

    i have to work this weekend, otherwise i was straight into the synopsis…

    am actually just over half way through – one of those books where i have to read every line three times through just to get the gist of it.

    i’m not sure i’ve actually got to his main argument, though a lot of it does seem directed towards communities (as in the chruch) rather than individuals.

    there’s not enough pictures in the observer for me, i like the funnies…

  6. 6 girlfromclapham May 11, 2009 at 10:59 am

    Been popping in to visit your blog on and off for a while now, so thought I’d say hello – this was a really thought-provoking post.
    I wonder about forgetting the sorrow and pain of our lives. I’m not sure I want to forget those moments (and maybe I won’t get a choice!) because as well as adding to my brokenness, those things drove me in my pursuit of God. My brokenness leads me to recognise I need him and so those broken things put me on the journey towards wholeness. I’d like the remembrance of immense gratitude that can only be felt when you truly remember what you once were. The fact that you remember all the medical brokenness you’ve seen allows you to bring wholeness in your practice, to make all things new, to turn mourning into joy and sorrow into the oil of gladness.
    It makes me think about the image of Jesus as the scarred God, interceding in heaven before the Father. He’s whole, but his wounds tell of something broken made beautiful. The scars aren’t lost, just made into something else.

  7. 7 transfarmer May 11, 2009 at 11:32 am

    I have still never made it to the end of exclusion and embrace but from my limited understanding so far yea forgiveness takes place regardless of reciprocation, which is easier to get your head around when we understand that forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation (however the goal of forgiveness is always reconciliation).

    When Volf talks about memory he is basically saying that the purpose of memory is not to perpetuate hatred and exclusion but rather memory serves to help us remember rightly and eventually lead us to ultimate non-rememberence. In this way the victim, the perpretatror and the wounds are healed and restored in Christ.

    If someone wrongs me and i committ to never forgetting what they have done i label myself as a victim, and them as an evil perpretatror and I never let either of us be anything else. But this is deeply flawed. Christ’s death changes how I must remember the wrongdoing.
    1) I need to allow the wound to be fully exposed and faced (which is painful)
    2) i need to remember that this wrongdoing has been paid for, and forgiven in christ.
    3) I need to remember that I stand alongside my perpretator in as much need of forgiveness as he is (so i remember myself as a perpetrator as well as a victim and my perpretator as also a victim).
    4) I need to remember that in Christ my enemy and I are reconciled (even if they have not yet stepped into that reconciliation).

    This kind of forgiveness and ‘remembering rightly’ holds out the possibility of ultimate non-rememberence. It leads us to a place of embrace where we are willing to let go of that initial committment to ‘never forget’. we are letting go of the desire to hold the other person eternally in debt. We are on the road of forgiveness when we are willing to not let the wrongdoing be eternally remembered.

    So Volf is not telling us to minimize the harm or to surpress our memories, but rather to allow memory to do its proper work of bringing everything into the light of Christ.

    phew not sure if any of this made sense but its been a needed kick up the ass for me to think about this stuff again. so thanks for starting the discussion.

  8. 8 Nelly And I May 11, 2009 at 6:50 pm

    girlfromclapham – pleasure to meet you (in that odd internet way), comment much appreciated. Depending on when you ask me, i’ll see the stuff work as either 1) something to keep me awake at night a bottle of whisky or 2) lessons to be learnt and moments of realisation of why i do the job at all.

    I always loved “love is a series of scars” by Duke Special

    Transfarmer – the “almost but not yet” of all this eschatological (if that’s even the right use of the word?) memory makes it all a bit tricky and leaves me in a “oh well, it’ll be all get sorted with the second coming, so i don’t need to try too hard now” kind of attitude.

    Am still only on page 150 out of 300. Must drop him a note and ask him to write books with more pictures in them next time…

    • 9 transfarmer May 13, 2009 at 6:15 pm

      ah you see that’s where you’re going wrong, trying to LIVE OUT this christan stuff, its much easier just to play with the theories in your head! – thanks for makin it real, and yes, many more people would get through his book if he added pictures! lets make a petition.

  9. 10 hedgemonkey May 18, 2009 at 3:14 am

    Lovely and poignant piece Andy. I have always tried to hold desperately onto all my memories. ‘Cos their mine, see! Bitter or sweet. My journal keeping also dates back to my school days in a futile effort to hold all occurrences near. I envy your Total Recall-esque super power … I fear I shed memories like pieces of dandruff, journal keeping or not.

  10. 11 Nelly And I May 18, 2009 at 8:40 pm

    Jase, good to hear from you. glad you liked it. i still keep at the old journaling but i find myself more and more keeping it on here! Hope the masterplan is going well.


  1. 1 My Memory’s Personality at Zoomtard Trackback on May 11, 2009 at 1:13 am
  2. 2 Theologians « Nelly And I Trackback on May 20, 2009 at 11:38 pm

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