“Memory is a tricky thing,” wrote author S. E. Grove. “It doesn't just recall the past; it makes the past. If you remember our trip as a few minutes, it will be a few minutes. If you make it something else, it will be something else.”
Police detectives and psychologists agree. Research on the topic comes up with the same conclusion, over and over—our memories are anything but reliable. We do not store information exactly as it is presented to us. On the contrary, we store it in a way that makes the most sense to us. Along the process, however, researchers have shown we often move away from—not towards—truth.
And yet, somehow, despite all our human shortcomings, our Creator God calls us time and again to remember—“Remember this day in which you went out of Egypt” (Ex. 13:3); “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy” (Ex. 20:8); “Remember that the Lord your God led you all the way these forty years in the wilderness” (Dt. 8:2).
No doubt, God knew that individual memories would differ. To build on the same biblical examples, people might have asked, what was the weather like the day we left Egypt? Or, by which injunctions we are reminded of the sacredness of the Sabbath? Or even, which actions remind us of the Lord’s presence in the wilderness?
While individual answers may vary, God seems to ascribe an intrinsic value to the act of remembering that indeed, the Lord led us out of Egypt, Sabbath is a holy day, and He’s been leading His people through the wilderness. It is as if God would tell us, “Even though your memory may be flawed, it’s better to remember than to forget.”
A Day to Remember?
And prone to forget we are.
Somehow, despite all our human shortcomings, our Creator God calls us time and again to remember
A quick tour through cyberspace confirms that in the case of US Memorial Day—a national holiday on the last Monday of May dedicated to remembering those who died while serving in the country’s armed forces—the greatest danger is not a faulty memory but sheer oblivion.
If media outlets are a reliable indicator of the general feeling about Memorial Day, many 2017 Americans seem more interested in the holiday weather forecast, the time public pools open, and special retail offers.
Not giving the day the attention it’s due might be not only a case of distraction but retraction. In a world of confused motives and blurred lines between often contradictory ideals, forgetfulness may present itself as a safe bet. Indeed, the “meaning traps” of Memorial Day are numerous and ubiquitous. Some may distrust the motives of the honored, the reason or unreason of a specific armed conflict, or even the philosophical rationale for going to war. After all—so the logic goes—we are called to a fellowship of peace.
Also, from the moment Cain took the life of his brother Abel, life-taking decisions on another human being are an enigma which always points us back to the reality of sin, not to its remedy. No matter how much war is romanticized or lobbied for, setting out on a mission to take another person’s life—before he takes yours—is not a scar-free enterprise.
But as the biblical injunction reminds us, even a flawed memory is better than no memory at all. Remembering the sacrifice of others gives us background, context, and projection. It helps us to stop taking things for granted. It builds our identity, our interconnections, our mutual dependence. Without memory, we become entities in a vacuum, a beating heart without a soul. We propel ourselves to nothingness.
And no rhetoric, no bias can obscure a sobering fact—in the last couple of centuries, in the United States, millions of babies were born, fed, educated, and trained. As they grew up, their loved ones celebrated their birthdays, graduations, and marriages. Those babies became men and women with plans, projects, and dreams. But millions were drafted—or chose—to serve in the military.
Today, at least one million of them are no more. The deceased left memories. They also left parents, brothers and sisters, wives, and children behind. For many of those relatives, Memorial Day is an open sore.
How to go about it, then?
For the living and the dead, our own good, our human past and future, and our devotion to the Creator of memory, the injunction is on.
We shall remember.