Erasing Traumatic Memories?

Gilbert Meilaender, the Lutheran theologian and bioethicist, has some very helpful essays on ethics and the Christian life.  I’ve read his book Bioethics before, which I really enjoyed.  I also own a collection of his essays called The Freedom of a Christian.  I appreciate all the essays, though one that sticks out for me is “Why Remember?”

In this essay, Meilaender wrestles with this bioethical question: would it be good if we could erase some of our most terrible memories?  The question arises since there are certain drugs that can prevent the formation of long-term memories (anti-anxiety drugs or beta-blockers).  For example, if you’d undergo a horribly traumatic experience on the battlefield or at the scene of a fire, there might be a drug to wipe that memory out.  Is that desirable?  Meilaender isn’t so sure.  Here are a few quotes I appreciated.

“It is not fitting…that we should construct the narrative of our life in a way that largely bypasses its embodied character” (p. 186).

“If we cannot say who we have been, we can never know who we are.  Our humanity lies not in mastery over the construction of our life story but in the virtues by which we accept the limits of the body, live truthfully in the face of the past, and seek to give new meaning to what is painful or misguided in that past” (p. 188).

This quote is a bit longer, but it is worth citing in full.

“One who supposed that he could attain that godlike perspective on the meaning of life might perhaps be in a position to know what experiences were so painful that they were better obliterated from memory.  If, on the contrary, we know ourselves as bodies who live in time, whose lives must have a narrative quality but who cannot know the end or full meaning of our life story, then our task is not to erase memory but to connect and integrate memories – to live the story as best one can who does not yet know how the plot will work out.”

“Perhaps, in doing so, some of us will believe that there is no past so painful that it cannot be transfigured and redeemed in a truthful story.  Perhaps, in doing so, others among us may suspect that the best we can do is blow on the coal of the heart and see by and by how the plot takes its course.  But neither approach will find good reason to act as if we already knew the full meaning of life’s story.  In either case we are led to acknowledge our limits, to honor the narrative quality of human life, to accept our need to sustain the life stories of another, and to wonder at the mysterious depths of a ‘memoried’ human life” (p. 190).

One more:

“Human beings…are not to erase the memories that give them pain but to place those memories into a new, larger, and redemptive story” (p. 185),

There’s a lot more to this essay to be sure – I highly recommend it.  This bioethical discussion of the memory is highly applicable to the Christian life.  Many of us have some traumatic memories we’d love to erase.  But perhaps it might not be desirable after all.  In God’s sovereign plan and providence, the trials in our lives – and memories of those trials -are important events that he can use to draw us closer to himself and grow us in godliness, praise, and a stronger desire for heaven.

Gilbert Meilaender, The Freedom of a Christian (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006).

shane lems

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One comment on “Erasing Traumatic Memories?

  1. jake bosch says:

    every thing is a blessing and a curse and the rain falls on us all – its best to get soaking wet and embrace the reality of it all and wed grief and joy as a gift wrapped in the same moment and feel the wonder you cannot control

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