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Identity through remembering

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By Rev. Michael Duncan

If you are my age or older, you probably remember as a younger person losing patience with an older person who started to tell you something and then stopped... finally confessing, “Well, I forgot what I was going to tell you.” I now find myself wishing that I had been more patient with such people, as patient as they were in not telling me that the day would come when I would understand. I do.

An old public service ad used the tagline, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.” It was originally used in 1972 by the United Negro College Fund. In the years that have passed, it has been used by many to stress the need for a quality education.

Let me give that tagline a small twist: Memory is a terrible thing to lose.

Those persons who are experiencing dementia and/or Alzheimer’s and their families know just how true that is. People who lose their memories also lose their identity.

Memory is what keeps us together. In many ways, who we are is a composition of our memory. Memory keeps us tied to family, community, church... even to our faith. Other than caring for those who suffer such loss, I’m not sure how much we can help. Oh, in the early stages we can provide gentle reminders. We may, by our presence with such persons, be that gentle reminder of shared memory and life.

While I grieve the loss of memory that comes via disease or brain injury, there is another loss of memory that concerns me. It is the loss that comes when we voluntarily cease to remember, even to forget, events and people that are a part of our past and our present.

In the fast-paced race of today’s living, there is less and less time for remembering. We are experiencing lots of events and emotions, but I’m not sure we are remembering them. If we keep up the pace long enough, we may wake up some morning wondering who we are and how did we get here.

It is not a new problem. God, speaking through the prophet Isaiah, called out to the people, “Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness, you that seek the Lord. Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug” (Isaiah 51:1 NRSV).

God, of course, wanted the people to remember their faith heritage, to recall Who had called them forth and had provided for them. When a people forget from whence they have come, they will have no way to remain a faithful people.

The verse from Isaiah got me to thinking about remembering from whence we’ve come in a broader sense. None of us is self-made. Parents, friends, teachers, co-workers, casual acquaintances, and even our enemies have all contributed to who we are.

To the extent that we remember this, our self-identity becomes clearer and more understandable.

Remembering is not automatic. It requires practice, and the practice required is the telling of our stories. Telling the stories helps to solidify them in our minds, and the telling of one story leads to the remembering of other stories.

The problem with our memories may not be merely a matter of age. It may stem from our lack of time to sit together telling and listening to each other’s stories.

The call to “look to the rock from which you were hewn... to the quarry from which you were dug” is a call to slow down... to slow down long enough to tell our stories and to listen to each other.

Failing to do so, we risk more than the loss of memory. We risk the loss of identity.