The classic sci-fi movie Total Recall is about the manipulation of memory. In the future, a company offers to save you money on your vacations by implanting memories of a great trip to Mars or some other exotic destination without your ever having to leave home. As always seems to happen, the technology is co-opted by a sinister corporation led by a nefarious villain, in this case bent on acquiring the secrets of the ancient Martians for himself.

Of course, the abuse of memory, or perhaps memory’s abuse of us, is not merely the stuff of science fiction. It happens every day. A hateful mother, bent on embarrassing and belittling her adult son or daughter, reminds him or her of that incident when he or she was six or sixteen, which the mother has never forgiven nor forgotten. A song, a smell, a photo brings to mind some hurtful time, and the pain and anxiety are just as real and present as they were that day in the past. The bumper sticker featuring a Confederate flag and a crotchety old Rebel soldier bears the caption “Hell, no, I ain’t fergittin’,” and tells us implicitly that the driver is not likely to respect the black mayor of his town or to vote for Barack Obama.

Memory can enslave us, hold us hostage, to our own failings and regrets or to the way things used to be in a day long dead. And until we gain mastery over it, resolving to learn from yesterday instead of constantly reliving the pain or anger, we can’t move forward with our lives or make progress as a culture.

But if memory can be our enemy, so can it serve as our ally. Or to change the metaphor, it’s the engine at the head of at least three trains: continuity, capability, and caution.

Continuity. One of the reasons I consider the celebration of the Eucharist so vital is that the Great Thanksgiving said over the bread and cup connects worshippers with their spiritual ancestors. We in the 21st century are first-hand participants in the drama of salvation, if we take the text of the Thanksgiving seriously. It’s a countercultural act to pray that prayer and let its words get into our hearts. To affirm and remember that we are part of a great company of saints with twisted, tarnished haloes down through the ages sounds strange to anyone, including churchgoers, who have bought fully into the rampant individualism of our society. But the embrace of such continuity keeps us honest even as it imbues us with hope, energizes our faith and practice even as it eviscerates the presumption that we are better or more enlightened than any previous generations.

Capability. To realize the vital part memory plays in even the smallest aspect of our daily lives, we only have to watch or care for an Alzheimer’s patient struggling with basic tasks like chewing and swallowing food, taking care of personal hygiene or recognizing members of his or her family. When memory is obscured, life becomes more difficult to live on our own and finally impossible. Someone else must remember for us when our minds are in chaos, and every moment seems new. Favorite foods are forgotten. Stories of the past are no longer shared. Even what we had for lunch or the day of the week is lost in the fog.

I can’t help but wonder if we all to some extent don’t suffer from a kind of cultural dementia which has blocked out our memory of the basic qualities and actions which make us human. These could be stated in a number of ways. Tell the truth. Value what is excellent, lovely, and commendable. Live with honor and grace (see Philippians 4:8). “Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God” (see Micah 6:8). Since we have forgotten these basics, is it any wonder that our society, government and churches are so dysfunctional and apparently incapable of finding solutions to the great problems which plague us?

Caution. The philosopher George Santayana famously said “Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness…. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Our shared memory of heinous acts by dictators and self-righteous religionists of a former day is one of our greatest defenses against tyranny and extremism in our own time. Our individual remembrance of the consequences of stupid decisions and poor choices can keep us from making the same mistakes twice. So as a people we need to be interested in and find out what our nation, our churches, our corporations have done and are doing, embracing the good and not denying the oppressive and the shameful. And each of us might do well to keep a journal reminding us of what happened when we did thus and so; or better, have a close friend who will confront us with the truth about our actions and hold us accountable. Memory will keep us safe, alert us to danger encountered before, and suggest a way out before it’s too late.

This Memorial Day, we will recall those who have given their lives for the cause of freedom. Let us by the power of memory become and be the kind of people who are worthy of such sacrifice.

© 2008 by Tom Cheatham