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 just finished one essay in a collection of his essays called The Freedom of a Christian. The essay is called “Why Remember?”
In this essay, Meilaender wrestles with what the memory is good for and if it would be desirable to erase horrible memories. Apparently there are certain drugs that can prevent the formation of long-term memories. For example, if you’d undergo a horribly traumatic experience, 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.
“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).
This is highly applicable to the Christian life. Many of us have some memories we’d love to erase. But perhaps it might not be desirable after all. In God’s plan and providence, the tough parts of our lives are important shaping events that he might use to grow us in grace.