The Value of Memory
Updated: Jun 7
We live in a society that is infatuated with progress. Ever since the Enlightenment, the belief in humanity’s ability to gradually improve the world generation by generation has shaped our cultural conversations. Progress appears in our celebration of modern science to bring “salvation” from the pandemic (the word literally used by prominent figures), and in the basic belief that humanity is capable of becoming ever more awake to the injustices in our world (with scarce acknowledgement that we humans are the reason those injustices exist in the first place). It seems we have a remarkable confidence that we might be able to reach heavenly perfection through our own efforts.
This presents problems for a Christian mindset. As Richard Bauckham notes, 'the Enlightenment hope of a utopian future for history was a secularization of Christian hope. Most significantly it abandoned transcendence, trusting instead in the immanent possibilities of the historical process itself.' Indeed, as Christians, whilst we look forward to the future hope of the coming of God’s Kingdom here on earth, it is not just a future we are hoping for, it is the future culmination of an event that happened over 2,000 years ago in Palestine through the incarnation, life and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Looking back, remembering, is important in the Christian faith – our worship services centre around a remembering in the Holy Communion – one of Christ’s final commandments was 'do this in remembrance of me' (Luke 22:19); Israel is continually encouraged to 'remember' the historic faithfulness of God (Deuteronomy 6:12); and scripture suggests blessing comes through 'the memory of the righteous' (Proverbs 10:7).
Despite this emphasis on remembering, our hopes in the possibilities of the next generation mean we often forget the value of memory. We forget that whilst young people have new ideas, hopes and dreams for a better world, the older people in our midst have seen a lot of those hopes and dreams before, have learnt from them, and may just have something valuable to offer. The lessons learnt, the wisdom of experience, the memories of the old are a gift we rarely choose to receive. This is, of course the most common positive attribute that we ascribe to older people - if only we would listen, we would surely all be that much richer.
And yet, it seems to me (and many others before me) that it is a mistake to suggest the value of older people lies primarily in their memories. There are two reasons for this – firstly, if we revere older people mainly for their memory, what happens to those who lose their memory in later life? Those with Alzheimer’s or cognitive decline who begin to forget, or those who can no longer convey their life lessons due to incapacity and frailty. Secondly, to suggest older people are valuable primarily for their memory is to render them useful only because of their past, leaving a crucial question – what can they offer us for who they are now?
The answer to the latter question can be found right at the beginning of the Bible. In the passages quoted above, the emphasis is on us to remember God. And yet this isn’t the first cause of remembering in the Bible. Who is the first to remember? It is God himself, as Genesis 8:1 shows - 'But God remembered Noah and all the wild animals'. Before we can even consider remembering God, He remembers us. This reveals a deep truth at the heart of human existence that we easily forget - our worth as humans comes not in our cognitive ability, our memory, but first and foremost in the truth that God loves us, sustains us, remembers us. If this is true, and if we so easily forget it, the simple presence of older people who have lost their capacity, ability and memory is a gift. They are a gift because they remind us of what it means to be truly human - to be dependent, not on ourselves and our own abilities, but on a God who remembers us even when we have lost the ability to remember Him. Or, in John Swinton’s words, 'When the world forgets its Creator, we begin to think we are the creators…In such a worldview, our capacity to do things becomes primary. Unlike God, we demand that people have gifts instead of recognizing that in fact they are gifts' So as we seek the value of memory, let us be reminded that the contribution of older people is more than just their memory, it is simply their presence, reminding us who we truly are - not the sum product of what we achieve, nor the grand total of all of our talents, but each a gift because we are a created, loved and remembered child of God.