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.