by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational Church
21 January 2024
What does it mean to remember truthfully?
Especially given all we know about the fickleness of memory. How easily we forget or elide details. How often two people’s memories of the same moment are quite different from each other. How our self-interest and biases can shade what we recall. Even how trauma can deeply wound our memory.
Maybe we can start by thinking of ways we remember falsely?
Like nostalgia. I’m a deeply sentimental person who engages in a fair bit of nostalgia. But nostalgia can be a problem. Last week I quoted James K. A. Smith who wrote, “Sometimes the most faithful act of remembering requires a destruction of our nostalgias; sometimes the most creative act of remembering is to ruin the illusions we’ve learned to live with.”
Nostalgia can traffic in illusions, making the past better than it actually was.
In her book Atlas of the Heart, Brene Brown talks about how nostalgia was once considered a medical disease and psychiatric disorder. That’s not the common perspective anymore, but she does warn that nostalgia can be an unhealthy coping strategy.
Nostalgia, she writes, often arises from loneliness and when combined with rumination is a strong predictor for depression making us “more likely to pay attention to negative things, and [zapping] our motivation to do things that would improve how we feel.”
So, she generally comes down on the negative side in her evaluation of nostalgia, describing it as “a yearning for the way things used to be in our often idealized and self-protective version of the past.”
Miroslav Volf writes that we can also remember unjustly. And this violates what he considers to be our moral obligation to remember truthfully. We are most likely to remember unjustly in the case of complex memories of wrongdoing. We tend to be self-protective, of course, and in doing so, often frame the memory to put ourselves in the best light and see others at their worst. This, he teaches, is unjust. In our remembering we must be honest about our own role and accurate in how we judge other’s actions, not making them worse than they actually were. We need to be very careful about how we assign blame and avoid making others a scapegoat.
Volf says this is a very difficult task, to remember wrongdoings truthfully and justly. We are finite, our memories are always approximations with some mix of imaginative construction. But doing the hard work of remembering truthfully and justly, he writes, is worth the effort because such hard work is more likely to result in healing and justice.
S0, we can remember falsely in the way we assign blame to others . . . and, also, ourselves. One way false memories show up is through the emotion of shame. James K. A. Smith calls shame “a nefarious enemy of grace that thrives on the backward glance.” He goes on, “Shame teaches me to look at my past and see something hideous that makes me regret my existence.”
Much of the best recent work on shame has been done by Brene Brown. She is always clear in distinguishing shame from guilt. Guilt is the feeling that we have done something wrong, whereas shame is the feeling that we are bad. The feeling of guilt can lead to accountability, making amends, healing, and growth. Shame generally leads to disconnection and feelings of unworthiness. It is the belief that we are flawed.
Interestingly, she writes that shame is often actually connected to narcissism and perfectionism. A perfectionist views all their failures as personal defects and so avoids trying new things. Narcissists have what she calls a “shame-based fear of being ordinary.”
Shame burdens us with a focus on something from our past. It keeps us turned backwards, not fully enjoy the present or living with openness to the future.
Brown writes that the antidote to shame is empathy. Finding those you can share your shame with who will respond with care. We can’t overcome our shame until we learn to speak about it.
Smith teaches that shame is the opposite of grace. Whereas shame burdens us from the past, grace is God’s “good news of unfathomable possibility.” He writes, “My personal history isn’t something to regret; it is something God can deploy in ways I never could have imagined.” Instead, God sees our weaknesses as “openings for strength.” “Grace,” he says, “wants to unleash our history for a future with God that could only be ours—living into the version of ourselves that the world needs.” God’s grace opens up the possibilities that our pasts are the tools needed for God’s work to be done.
So, from these teachers we learn that to remember truthfully, we must avoid the destructive forms of nostalgia, injustice in the way we view ourselves, and others, and the shame that robs us of the abundance of possibility that is God’s grace.
How, then, do we remember truthfully, especially if that’s a memory of our own wrong-doing?
A couple of years ago I read a small book entitled Regret: A Theology by Duke Divinity School professor Paul Griffiths. In that book, Griffiths writes about what he calls the “otherwise emotions.” The various emotions we feel when we wish that the world was other than what it is. Or that we had done something other than what we have done.
I assume you’ve got a few—or more than a few—of these: moments or actions or decisions from the past that you wish were otherwise?
Remorse is the emotion we feel when our past presses upon us, reminding us of what we have done. Intriguingly, he writes that remorse itself reveals that our past is porous, that it can be redeemed, which we’ll get more into in a moment. The feeling of remorse is itself part of the process of healing and reconciliation. Even feeling or wishing that one had done otherwise is a step in the right direction. A step that hopefully leads to further steps, to contrition, lament, making amends, etc.
Remorse also involves our ability to imagine a different future, a future where our past and our feelings of guilt no longer weigh heavily upon us.
Brene Brown writes about the healthy power of regret. She’s very critical of those who say that they live “with no regrets.” Such people, her research has revealed, are really people who live with no reflection. Healthy, mature people do reflect, and in their reflecting, they regret what they’ve done wrong. But they don’t let that remorse develop into shame, because they do something about it.
Brown writes, “I firmly believe that regret is one of our most powerful emotional reminders that reflection, change, and growth are necessary.” She goes on, “In our research, regret emerged as a function of empathy. And, when used constructively, it’s a call to courage and a path toward wisdom.”
The reason Miroslav Volf is so insistent on the moral obligation to remember truthfully, is because he believes this is integral to the redemption of the past. And that’s probably a notion we don’t think of very often. How can the past, which is settled and finished, be redeemed?
What we have suffered weighs us down like a heavy load we long to have lifted: like an indefatigable enemy, it assails us relentlessly. The wreckage of history—a trail of shattered beauty, defiled goodness, twisted truths, streams of tears, rivers of blood, mountains of corpses—must somehow be mended. That the past must and will be redeemed is a conviction essential to the Christian notion of redemption.
God will acknowledge and take account of this history. Rightly assigning blame and enacting justice. Victims will be acknowledged, and amends will be made. Perpetrators will be called to account and their sins forgiven and atoned for. And, of course, all of us are both victims and perpetrators.
God’s grace, then, opens up fresh and new possibilities. Grace can’t go back and change the past, but it can change how we use it to create a better future, to become our best selves.
I like how Paul Griffiths describes it, “Regret sometimes permits a transfiguration of the past by an opening up of the future. The past is never simply given, unchangeable; its presence to and in the present and the future belongs to it, and when the mode of that presence changes, so too does the past.”
We might not be able to alter what we have done in the past, but we can alter its meaning and impact for us now and in the future. We can even, sometimes, forget altogether.
What allows us to remember truthfully, in a way that leads to justice, healing, hope, and love, is the abundance of God’s grace. Reaching out to envelop us, and all that we are, and have been and will be. Constantly opening up new possibilities and providing for us the resources we need to live well and faithfully now.
Hear, again, the joyful words of the 51st Psalm:
You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.