Without memory you are not you. I heard that said on the radio a while ago.
What a simple yet profound statement. It applies on both the micro and macro level (personal and societal-national).
Without memory your family members are a congregation of strangers. Without memory you have never heard the songs of your favorite bands. Without it the movies and books that have helped shape who you are dissolve into the hinterlands, becoming nothing more than odd stories to be rediscovered and strange titles to be read for the first time. Without memory you have no idea how special the USA is and how unique it is in the course of human history.
A popular saying goes “He who does not know history is doomed to repeat it.” I believe this to be true. Visiting historic places is not simply a chance to snap a selfie to collect accolades on social media, it is deeper than that. Similar to how a good book can transport you to a distant land in the past or to a fantasy world in the future, visiting places of significance helps us to understand the factors that contributed to making the place worthy of a roadside marker. We see the terrain; we feel the climate; our mind puts us in that place-in-time as we grasp why it is a place to be remembered after all. It is similar to visiting the graves of famous people.
One thing that I periodically do is hunt down the graves of famous people. I once took my wife on an hour journey through a poorly marked cemetery to find the grave of US President Buchanan (the one before Lincoln). Another time I dragged a friend along on a half days quest to find the final resting place of the eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes. Cleopatra’s sarcophagus was both amazing and unimpressive to see. The museum housing Napoleon’s tomb closed before I could get there two days in a row. And my father’s grave is marked with a ground-level marker that cannot be read unless you are standing beside it. All of these stops bring about the reality that death is the great equalizer, despite fame, fortune, ability, time and place.
Regardless of how families & contemporaries memorialize a person with a marker, a grave shows, to some extent, the person’s financial means and/or his importance to the history of the time in which they lived. There are always exceptions to this, of course, but generally speaking, graves offer a point-in-time to the living and for future generations that this person did indeed live a life. And he mattered to others so much that they wanted you to know about it. Memory.
The Scriptures eloquently tell us that there is nothing new under the sun. When you understand the past, it helps make sense of today and how we got here. It connects the dots. For instance, without knowledge of the American Revolution, the guy on the American one dollar bill is simply “the first president.” Without reading history you might never have known that Hollywood was almost based in Arizona instead of California. And without memory, you cannot image life before the Internet became essential to functioning in the modern world 1.
This is why history is so crucial for one and all. This is why memory is so important for the individual. This is the reason to study the past — it helps us today and in the future. How tragic it is when a family member develops Alzheimer’s disease because they have no memory of a mutually shared past. How tragic it also is for a person who gives no time to knowing the history of where he/she lives, to the events that shaped and labeled the very streets, cities, and places that are navigated without a GPS device.
Memory can also be humbling. The phrase the more I learn, the less I know has merit and should cause all people under the age of 30 to pause for a moment. They often approach life’s decisions with more emotion, compared to older folks who typically use intelligence guided by their past to make decisions (aka wisdom).
The older I get, the more troubling it is to watch the political and pop culture around us ignore so much of the past, which is readily available to them in their pockets via smartphones and the Internet. Because they ignorantly believe today’s circumstances are unprecedented in history (whatever day that today is), they need an over-the-top emotional response in order to rally allies to their narrow social-media universe. Sometimes it echos of Chicken Little’s warning that the “sky is falling.”
Without memory — personal, socially, historically, nationally — you are not you. And we are not we.