Memory is the Greatest Weapon

Memory is the greatest weapon in love’s mad arsenal.

I wrote that line when I was 26 years old. It still rings true – although as I get older it seems often it is a weapon for good, a defensive rather than offensive tool. Like vision, which has so many words related to falsehood – illusion, deception, misperception, memory is often associated with failure or more accurately, betrayal. Our memory of events, people, ourselves over time is the only database we truly have to catalog and create, of out some great Aristotaliatarian urge for order, the meaning of our lives; that is to say, the context of what we perceive to be our living – or as RD Laing put it, our “experience of living”.

It may be that the failing of our memory as we age, rather than a curse, is an infinite blessing. Much like the edges of a scene are washed out and lost as a light is brought closer and closer to it, perhaps as we approach nearer and nearer to the infinite we, like a cosmological deer caught in the headlights, lose our periphery as a mechanism for focusing us on what’s next, what’s beyond: a re-merging or reemerging with the light of pure energy. It’s an idea, anyway. It explains end-of-life lapses, maybe, but does it justify what seems to be a complete forgetting of what it means to be young, to feel free to make mistakes, to imagine oneself ten feet high and bulletproof (or conversely, to lack enough imagination to see negative outcomes as well as ephemeral pipe dreams) – that bitter cynicism that seems to latch onto us when we see our children grow up, when the salary increases don’t come, when the first world problems of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and bad cholesterol turn our muscle to fat, our burning young blood to sludge, and our thoughts to preservation instead of rebellion? Winston Churchill quipped, “If you’re young and conservative, you have no heart. If you’re old and liberal, you have no brains.” Isn’t there a middle ground? More importantly, if in fact you become conservative, shouldn’t part of that stewardship be to preserve (as in keep alive, not as in pickling) the ideas, energy, and purpose of one’s own youth? To at least, remember it as a necessary force in getting you to your current state?

Remembering one’s life, however, requires something a little more than simple memory, especially if that memory is limited to dates and times and places, a rote classification like that required in learning history in school. Writing that kind of history requires the author to be equal parts archaeologist, anthropologist, historian, philosopher, and demagogue. Because what’s important to a history, we are always taught, is the key milestones, decisions, and events – the turning points in a journey. What’s important to your own life, I suppose, is where those milestones, decisions, and events lead. But what’s interesting to anyone at all is none of those things. It’s the journey we want to hear about – the means, not the ends.

Of course, this flies in the face of everything we know about success, about what makes it and what it isn’t. Success, so many of us think, particularly in the West, is the bottom line. The balance sheet. The physical (and far too often) monetary legacy. An inheritance that can be passed on without too much bother, or effort, on the part of the beneficiaries. Sounds cold and unfeeling. Perhaps it is. But since the only way to pass on the intangibles is to share their experience, so that they become part of the beneficiary’s consciousness and history as well.

And for that, the best a personal history can do is make suggestions, offer clues, share if not the physical roadmap from here to there, then at least the names of the shops where such maps may be sought.

Memory is both an ally and adversary, both mirror and shadow. We have a tendency to remember ourselves as either more heroic, or more absolutely ordinary, than the reality of ourselves experienced by others at the time – our contemporaries, or people who existed (and perhaps still exist) in a shared, same time and space. It’s easy enough to cherry pick the highlights, after all, from the advantage of hindsight – when we are perhaps self-satisfied enough to put a blithe label on success and failure. In this sense, we are like self-examining anthropologists (which is by the very act of crossing the line between the Observer and Observed, an extreme breach of anthropological etiquette). When we look back and examine the artifact (i.e., artificial fact) of a past experience, there is a choice to either apply the worldview we have now, or imagine a remembrance of our worldview then, and interpret the motivation, action, and outcome of our history accordingly. Our interpretation then casts us as hero or villain, genius or idiot, by the yardstick of today only. There is never a clear connection between the fool that was and the fool that is. To make that connection requires a humility that an autobiographer lacks in the first place. You cannot, after all, trace the evolution of the intangible without using a tangible paradigm. And even those paradigms have their limitations – as my wife demanded in elementary school when told there were only three undefined terms (in geometry), the point, line and plane, “Define love.”

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