Do You Remember?

Our children’s story, A Day to Remember, by Jay F. Smith, was about a remembering and forgetting.  Sam the cat has something planned for the day, and can’t remember what it is.  The something is a resolution she made not to be mean to Coco, another cat.  Why do you suppose Sam made that resolution?

We get a hint – when Sam approaches Coco, Coco hides under the sofa.  I imagine that Sam’s resolution was an act of reconciliation, a way of repenting for past meanness.  But then what made her forget it?

The Jewish New Year is a time for remembering, repenting, and reconciling.  Rosh Hashanah began at sundown on September 28.   Ancient tradition has it that on this day God inscribes the fate of each person in either the Book of Life or the Book of Death.  The ten-day period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, a time known as the "Days of Awe," is a time for repentance and atonement.

The books stay open during the Days of Awe.  There is an opportunity to change which book ones’ name is in, before the books are again sealed on Yom Kippur.  Devout Jews spend these ten days seeking forgiveness and making amends.

The idea of written records of our lives is an ancient one, found in many cultures.  But what if the writer doesn’t remember the story correctly?  What version of the facts gets written down?

Writing things down of course is supposed to, and does, extend our capacity to remember.  It’s also a metaphor for how memory works.  This metaphor goes back at least to Plato – who wrote philosophy in Greece 400 years before the birth of Jesus – and who compared memory to a wax tablet. (1)

The images and language of reading and writing have become embedded in our understanding of memory – think about computer language, for example, with its “reading” and “writing” to disc.

Our son Eliot was flawless speller from a very early age.  Once on a car ride, after he had clobbered his older brother in a game of GHOST by pulling out four syllable words, I asked him how he knew all those words.  “I look in my brain,” he said, “and see them written there.”

I used to be a good speller, too, but now I have lapses.  Why?  What has happened to my memory?  Has my wax tablet gotten soft?

A cognitive neuroscientist named Daniel Schacter published a book about ten years ago called The Seven Sins of Memory. In it he summarizes and categorizes the different ways our memories can fail us, some of which are exaggerated as we age.

He names three memory failures “sins of omission.”   These sins are transience, absent-mindedness, and blocking.  The other four he calls “sins of commission;” they are persistence, misattribution, bias, and suggestibility.

Transience is the first sin.   Memories weaken or fade over time, and those that fade most quickly are those of routine events and activities.  Do you remember what you had for lunch two Tuesdays ago? Or exactly what you were doing at this time on October 2 a year ago?  Unless there was something special about those occasions, chances are your memory of them has faded or disappeared altogether. (2)

Over time, we may also forget or only dimly recall even people and happenings that were very important to us at the time.  Do you remember who you sat on your left in sixth grade?  What about on your right?  Chances are most of those kinds of details are lost.  That, again, is due to memory transience.

Absent-mindedness is the second memory “sin of omission.”  Absent-mindedness has been proven to beset people more as they age.  Schacter calls absent-mindedness “a breakdown at the interface between attention and memory.” (3)

Absent-mindedness is one of the more maddening memory sins.  Do you, like me, constantly lose your keys and glasses?  Last week I was convinced I had a meeting on Thursday at 6PM.  I even put it on my calendar.  My lapse was probably due to the fact that I was multi-tasking when the final email came through setting a different date.  Multi-tasking, which ensures we don’t give full attention to what we’re doing, contributes to making us even more absent-minded.

Blocking is the third sin of omission.  Blocking happens when we know something, and know we know it, but can’t retrieve it.  This happens most often with names, of people or of things.  Blocking is the mechanism at work when we have “tip of the tongue” experiences.  (4)

The other four “sins” of memory are    persistence,    misattribution,    bias, and suggestibility.  Persistence “entails repeated recall of disturbing information or events.” (5)  In its most extreme form persistence is the failing that doesn’t allow someone who has experienced a traumatic experience, for example, to let it go.

Misattribution is the experience of confusing our sources.  It can be harmless – I read a story in the paper and think I heard it on the radio. But misattribution can also be problematic – it bedevils legal testimony, for example, when witnesses unknowingly but wrongly attribute one person’s words or deeds to another.

Suggestibility is another “sin of commission.”  We can be easily influenced and misled by leading questions, comments, and suggestions when trying to remember an event.  (6)

Bias, the last of memory sins, is our tendency to rewrite an experience to conform to existing patterns of thought, culture and belief.  Bias leads us to hear and integrate only what we expect or want to hear, and to erase, or even fail to take in, what is actually being said or happening.

I once helped start and then run a company with someone who was an accomplished scientist.  We were in many, many meetings together, and we made lots of decisions together as members of a small team.  Over time, we grew apart.  I would come out of a meeting with an understanding of what had happened, what we had discussed, and what decisions had been made.

And I’d find myself astonished and angry, later, to hear him describe the same meeting with an account that was the opposite of what I had experienced.  I would joke with a colleague about parallel universes, convinced that they were the only explanation.  The memory sin of bias is probably a more plausible explanation.  I wonder, in hindsight – did bias affect us both?

Schacter says that the sin of bias also “reflects the powerful influences of our current knowledge and beliefs on how we remember our pasts.  We often edit or entirely rewrite our previous experiences – unknowingly and unconsciously – in light of what we now know or believe.”  (7)  Bias may cause us to believe, for example, that we behaved better in the past than is really the case.

Most of these memory failings, especially the failings of bias, suggestibility, and misattribution, are unconscious.  According to Schacter they affect us all.

What do memory’s failings have to do with repentance, reconciliation, and forgiveness?   Is it possible that the past did not happen just as we remember it?

I do remember the person I sat next to in sixth grade – on my left, at least.  It was my friend Linda.  She was smart and beautiful, a good artist and athlete, and the teacher’s favorite student.  We were in the third row; Linda’s desk was by the wall, I was one column in.

For three quarters of the year we passed notes and whispered and giggled.  Occasionally, when the teacher’s back was turned, we stole pencils and pushed workbooks and papers off the desks of the beleaguered kids who sat behind us.  It was the most fun I ever had in school.  Then one day the game was up.  Linda was exiled to the front row, and a girl I’ll call Sue was moved back to sit next to me.

Nearly forty years later I saw Sue again.  Her parents were members of our church, and she was visiting them from out of state.  I came up to her with a smile and introduced myself.  She wouldn’t shake my hand.  She just looked at me coldly and acknowledged that she remembered me.  I was taken aback.  I decided later that I must have done something really unforgiveable to her, after she got stuck sitting next to me, back in the sixth grade.  But I don’t remember, and I’ll never know.

It’s hard to remember the things of which we are or should be ashamed, the things we do or should regret.  We don’t want to remember when we have hurt other people.  Those cruelties and lapses, big and small,  don’t fit easily with our images of who we are, and, unconsciously, we may erase or alter those memories.

Last June, When Booker and I were visiting in Transylvania with Mihály and Enikő Benedek, minister and his wife from our partner church, we had lunch with our friend Csaba Todor and his family.  Csaba is the Unitarian minister who came here with the Benedeks as a translator, in April 2010.  He has a parish near Karácsonyfalva in Transylvania and he’s also working on a doctoral dissertation through the University of Manchester, in the UK.  Csaba is studying and comparing funeral practices, and in particular the theology behind those practices, in the UK and in Transylvania.

Csaba and I had a conversation – too brief – about that work.  Our talk stimulated me, later on, to think about the theology behind the memorial services I conduct.

One of the theological questions people ask, when they are near the end of life, is this:  How am I justified?  The theological term, “justification,” means, simply, “being made right.”

The dying, and then those who are left behind, want to know:  how will we be made right, how made whole, in the end, and afterwards?

In theistic traditions the questions gets framed in terms of being made right with God.

But the more important questions are about how we are made right with one another.  Family and friends ask themselves:  Did I do right by the person who died?  Did he or she do right by me?  Did his or her life matter and have meaning?  How do I come to peace with myself, and with my memories?

These are the same kinds of questions people ask themselves during the High Holy Days – how can I be made whole, reconciled to those from whom I have become estranged, forgive those who have done wrong, and be forgiven for the wrongs I have done?  How can I live a life of meaning?

In traditions like Judaism there is a ritual and discipline that provides a way for people to ask these questions, and ponder them deeply, at least once a year.  It’s a good tradition, one we can learn from.

During our visit with Csaba we also spoke, again too briefly, about the transition Romania has undergone from the dictatorship of Ceaucescu and the authoritarianism under Communist rule to a democratic state.  Our friends – Mihály, Enikő and Csaba – were born under Communism and lived through the revolution, which in Romania happened in 1989.

Who collaborated with the government repression under Communism?  What stories remain to be told?  What memories have not been shared?  Today, do people really want to know?

And when more facts emerge, how will people learn, be reconciled, ask forgiveness, and forgive?  What will people remember?

As Freeman Dyson wrote, “(Memory) not only selects and rearranges the facts of our lives, but also embroiders and invents.” (8) How will the “sins of memory” – transience, bias, suggestibility, misattribution, and persistence – come into play? 

These questions stayed on my mind when we visited Amsterdam – the warehouse quarters where Anne Frank and her family hid from the Nazis, the Jewish history museum, the pink triangle memorial not far from the Anne Frank museum that stands as a tribute and reminder of the persecution of gay people in Europe during the war years, and after.

I choose to believe, like Anne Frank, that despite our flaws, despite greed and fear, despite the capacity for evil that exists in each of us, people are essentially good.  In that essential goodness we long to be made right.  We long for wholeness, for cleansing from the imperfections and pettiness, the cruelty and shallowness, and even evil, to which we can and do succumb.

I don’t mean to suggest that the fact that our memories are flawed excuses the harm we or others have done.  We are still responsible for our actions.  But that fact does, to me, suggest that we may want to be more gentle with one another, more willing to listen, and, especially, less quick to judge those who faced situations we have never experienced.  We may want to help each other remember the good of which we are capable, the good we have done and, like Sam the cat, the good we intended to do but forgot.

The High Holy Days have lessons to teach.  It is good to pause, to remember, to repent, forgive, and reflect.  May we remember, even with the knowledge that our memories may be flawed and incomplete.  May we remember, may we forgive, and may we begin again in love.


(1) Douwe Draaismam, Metaphors of Memory: A History of Ideas About the Mind, Cambridge University Press, 1995, page 24.  (2) Daniel Schacter, The Seven Sins of Memory, Houghton Mifflin, 2001, page 4. (3) Ibid. page 4. (4) Ibid. page 71ff.  (5) Ibid. page 5. (6) Ibid. page 112ff. (7) Ibid. page 5. (8) Freeman Dyson, Disturbing the Universe, Basic Books, 1981, page 1.