Sunday, July 11, 2010


Only be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them slip from your heart as long as you live. (Deuteronomy 4.9)


The moment you close the window, this post becomes a thing of the past. Stepping into the present is a matter of perpetually zeroing out, leaving the prior minute go to make room for the next. Time doesn’t permit us to carry forward experience and knowledge. That’s memory’s function. In the moment, we rely on memory for insight. We consciously bring the past into the present. The Latin root of “memory”—memor—literally means “mindfulness.” To remember is to be mindful again. In contrast, to forget is derived from the Old English gietan (“to grasp”) and modified by for (“to pass by”), i.e., to let pass without grasping. Like remembering, forgetting is also a conscious act, a momentary decision to let things go. There is truth to the idea if we can’t remember it, it wasn’t important.

In the strictest sense, remembering and forgetting are not opposites, as they’re not matters of picking and choosing from the past. They’re dual functions of mindfulness, which means we sift through the present as we go. Initially, it’s instinctive. As infants, we’re unconsciously mindful that crying gets us fed or changed. But very soon, we develop conscious mindfulness driven by instincts. We choose to remember what helps and harms our chances for survival, while we let non-essential information go. We learn cooing and laughing delights the parents we depend on, while climbing out of the bassinette hurts us and scares them. We retain very few, if any, infant memories because our underdeveloped mental capacity has no space for useless information. By necessity, we forget as we go. Then, as we grow more independent, the need for mindfulness increases. We become more aware of what we should remember.

Failure to Grasp

Issues with mindfulness don’t emerge until much later, when we’d prefer to remember the good and forget the bad. But opportunity for forgetting passes with the moment. Rather than struggle in vain to undo the past, perhaps we should consider why we were mindful to retain certain experiences and not others. The answer may be simpler than we think. We were mindful in the moment to enable us to be mindful again. Still, we ask, why would we elect to remember hurtful, even harrowing events? I believe the answer is two-fold: to overcome them by becoming mindful they are things of the past, as well as remaining mindful we’re no less capable of inflicting harm on others than those who harmed us. Bad memories come to mind to awaken awareness of health and security at present—or to quicken awareness of dangerous threats to our wellbeing we’ve yet to disarm. Mindfulness prompts us to say, “I know better now.”

This is the nub of Deuteronomy 4.9: “Only be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them slip from your heart as long as you live.” Moses has spent the previous three chapters meticulously recounting Israel’s history under his leadership. Since his goal is inspiring them to go forward in his absence, he’s mindful to emphasize positive moments in the past. But he doesn’t shrink from discussing truly terrible ones—including the most harrowing of his own life, when a careless act nullified his possibility of living to see Israel take possession of Canaan. By human measure, the penalty seems too severe. Israel was thirsty. God told Moses to speak to a rock and water would pour forth. Instead, he struck the rock. It was a mindless act indicating Moses hadn’t been mindful of God’s power in the past. Acting on his own proved his failure to grasp the meaning in previous moments, when God provided for Israel. Moses’s mindlessness made very real the potential it might be said he, not God, led Israel into Canaan. He had to be absent to prevent this.

Leaving the Moment

When we read Deuteronomy 4.9, it’s vital to realize Moses isn’t simply telling Israel to recall God’s past goodness and judgment. He’s also urging them to remain mindful in the present. “Be careful, and watch yourselves closely,” he stresses. Living in the moment—a philosophy whose soundness can’t be overstated—goes beyond what we do and think in that instant. It also encompasses what we choose to retain or pass by when leaving the moment. Mindfulness is how we see what’s important now so we’ll understand future situations better. It’s what enables us to forgive and forget—to focus on mercy’s power without pausing to grasp sin’s pain. It’s what discerns between giving and lending, offering our best without expectation of repayment or reward. It’s what brings us ever closer to holiness, to the know God of the present as the God of the future—and the God of the past. The more mindful we are in the moment, the more quickly we’ll disable terrors of the past by recognizing the good we intended to grasp from them. Instead of recalling they diminished or nearly destroyed us, we’ll see them as moments we refused to be diminished or destroyed. That’s what we should be mindful of. That’s really what we kept when we left the moment. We need always to remember that.

Moses teaches us knowing why we remember is no less important than what we remember. In retrospect, we wish we didn’t remember many things, losing sight that we had sound reasons why we did. Mindfulness steers us from becoming prisoners of our past by alerting us to how it informs our present. What we recall while living in the moment determines how we leave it. Past good we remember spurs us on to greater good. The bad we chose not to forget strengthens us to withstand current harm. Understanding why we remember certain moments certain ways teaches us how to be more careful with this one.

When living in the moment, it’s essential to be mindful of how we leave it. Understanding why we remember is no less important than what we remember.


TomCat said...

Tim, this sermonette is very similar to the things I teach prisoners and former prisoners in my volunteer work. What you call mindfulness, I call developing consequential thinking. As we err, we need to take stock of what we could have done differently to prevent the error. Then we practice the improved behavior until it becomes automatic. Even so, ever time we face a new decision, we need be mindful of what consequences each possible choice will entail and decide accordingly.

Tim said...

Exactly, Tom. We are forever making memories, good and bad. And I'm convinced there are positive things to be gleaned from them all. We just have to direct our thoughts in that direction. Nothing is lost.

Thanks for the example--it's exactly what I needed here to bring this life!


claire said...

I find the older I get, Tim, the nicer my memories get. Or the less egregious, if you wish.

Like those people who harmed me had reasons... They helped me become who I am...

For years I had such a problem with my mother. Frankly, I find it less and less interesting to continue carrying them.

On the other hand, I understand what you and your friend TomCat say.

The good thing is that sometimes as one ages bad memories don't taste so bad any more.

Of course, having done time in jail may take us to another entirely different levels.


Tim said...

Claire, I find what you say so true. Could it be that age brings wisdom? I look back on traumatic moments in my life--and people whom I feared--and at this age I'm more prone to empathize with their frailties and ignorance, because I've seen similar ones in myself. That excuses neither of us, but it brings more clarity to my memories.

Those people did help us become who we are. And, you're right, it is less interesting carrying the burdens of some memories as we go.

This past weekend turned into memory overload for me--all of it good--but it kept bringing me back to what I'd posted here. I had a sort of Eureka moment. If we stick to etymology, the opposite of forget is forgive, to offer in passing as opposed to let pass without grasp. And as we get older, I believe we understand that. Instead of ignoring wrongs done to us, in the moment we offer love and tolerance. We leave the moment with a sweeter taste having given rather than refused to accept. But that's a skill that comes with time and the wisdom it teaches.

As for jail time, people I've known who've experienced that have told me it works one of two ways: either it hardens a person and essentially stalls the maturity process, or it accelerates maturity. Tom's personal experiences and work prudently point to the latter, I think.

Thanks for this. Memory is always difficult for me to write about, because it's so powerful and specific to each of us. But I believe it's something we should regularly attend to, as it affects us and our faith profoundly.

Blessings, dear friend,

Philomena Ewing said...

I love the quote at the bottom of the clock. Why we remember - ooh that's a big one !! So often my memories come unbidden and take me by surprise. It is my birthday tomorrow and inevitably I will be reminiscing on all the roads that have led me to here. I think memory is intimately tied to desire and that can lead us to be bitter as well as thankful. I am always interested in old people telling thier "stories" and I am aware that I am getting old too and when I'm telling young children about things that are still fresh and alive to me I am aware they are seeing me as antiquated and out of time !! It also makes me wonder about the wisdom associated with ageing in cultures that respect memory and how that has been eroded in our fast fast way of living today. Also, things like aboriginal dreamtime which I know very little about and so different from my own experience and yet is so vital to other another cultures beliefs relies on memory and yet is very much of use in the present. This is an interesting and stimulating post Tim-
Thank you : Blessings,hugs and take time to remember for the good times !!

Tim said...

Phil, first-off, happy birthday! I pray a most joyous day for you and the best year yet.

I'm so glad you weighed in here, knowing your keen interest in time and consciousness. Vis-à-vis Tom and Claire's comments above and your note about "the wisdom of aging," I'm prone to believe it's experience more so time. I've met a lot of younger people who dwarf my wisdom simply because they've seen more of life in a shorter time. They're much better at leaving the moment with decisive clarity than I.

Then we also have Scripture telling us God endows some of us wisdom, Solomon and Jesus being the prime examples. In these cases, it seems more likely God-given wisdom shapes its owners' experiences from the first. We know from Solomon and Jesus that wisdom doesn't spare anyone from pain and sorrow, but it appears to insulate them from detrimental memory.

Finally there's the "collective memory" you describe which lives in dreamtime and other cultural anomalies that mysteriously (or is it mystically?) collapse time. A quick scan through my undergrad psych courses doesn't surface any notable mention of this phenomenon by Jung or his followers, but I would bet some theory of how and why it works exists somewhere.

Re the "old-timer" feeling that comes with describing past experiences to youngsters: that used to bother me because it did indeed make me feel old. But the older I get, the more grateful I am that I've lived to tell!

Thanks again for your thoughts. They add another layer of richness to a most elusive topic!

Blessings and returned hugs,

TomCat said...

You're most welcome, Tim. Although we often approach things from different directions we usually end up in the same place.

Tim said...

Don't you love that, Tom? Could it be that we also start from the same place--seeking justice and guidance to truth? I think that's probably it.


TomCat said...

No argument from me.