Sunday, March 27, 2011

Rethinking a Thought

It took a while to get to sleep last night. I was “haunted” by some words I wrote for yesterday’s blog. I had quoted the C.S. Lewis character, Hyoi, from Out of the Silent Planet. In speaking about memory, Hyoi said to Ransom, “When you and I met, the meeting was over very shortly, it was nothing. Now it is growing something as we remember it. But still we know very little about it. What it will be when I remember it as I lie down to die, what it makes me in all my days till then—that is the real meaning.” (Emphasis added)

We know very little about the cognitive capabilities of our non-human fellow creatures, but we assume that their capacity for memory is far less than ours, and that, more to the point, their ability to connect their various memories and reform them into a collective “history” of their past is, in all but the highest vertebrates, nearly non-existent. Or, to state it Biblically, man is made in the image of God, having some God-like capabilities, admittedly writ small, but nonetheless considerable in contrast to all other earthly creatures.

I cannot plumb the Mind of God to depths sufficient to explain why He would lay a burden such as that upon his creature. He must have had great hopes for it. We can only wonder if, amidst the torn and tattered history humans have accumulated, there is anything that even dimly fulfills those hopes. But if there is any hope at all it is embodied in the wisdom of Hyoi – to paraphrase, the redeeming power of human memory lies in what it makes of us in all our days till we lie down to die. That is the real meaning.

We seek to retrieve the joy of pleasant moments through repeating them, but find, as C.S. Lewis has noted, there is less joy in the encore than in the initial experience.  Hyoi’s insight is that memories are not static experiments, subject to codification or replication, but rather living cells, implanted in our being, that continue to nourish (or destroy) us until the day we die.

We try to wrest meaning from past unpleasant times by working and re-working them in our troubled mind, hoping we can reshape them to say or be something less hurtful to our spirit. Hyoi would tell us the meaning is not in what we make of them, but in what they make of us.

Robert Browning Hamilton’s poem, I Walked a Mile with Pleasure, has been memorized by thousands, the author included, and recited in times of sorrow.

I walked a mile with Pleasure;
She chatted all the way;
But left me none the wiser
For all she had to say.

I walked a mile with Sorrow,
And ne’er a word said she;
But, oh! The things I learned from her,
When sorrow walked with me.

Those are wise, insightful words from Hamilton, with which I would not quibble too much. I would only add that our walks with pleasure are gifts as well; gifts, given to instruct us and build us more into the image of God, blessings, given not because of what we are, but to assist us in becoming something else, something better, vendors of pleasure to those who share our earthly journey. Likewise, our “walks with sorrow” are not just about learning, but about growing as well.

At the risk of triteness, I offer a paraphrase of John’s Kennedy’s famous challenge. My challenge would be, “Ask not what you should make of your past; ask rather what your past can make of you.”


1 comment:

  1. I never heard those JFK words, but like them. If memories are living cells, maybe then those with Alzheimer's are truly dying one memory at a time.
    I do agree, I grow with sorrow. I see pleasure as being a reprieve from periods intense growth. Pleasure's fun but much of our lives are spent in sorrow.

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