Not a reduction of pain, and not sleep, but a suppression of memory, like anesthetics that keep you “cooperative.”
I shared the following remarks on Remembrance Day (November 11th) in 2015 to the student body of Conrad Grebel University College (University of Waterloo). I am deeply grateful to Trevor Bechtel for inviting me to share them, and to the students at Conrad Grebel for their warm response.
A lot of people are remembering today.
Remembering is something that we do in different ways, for different reasons.
Remembering can be difficult to do, for various reasons.
Remembering can be difficult NOT to do, for various reasons.
Remembering is sometimes comfort, sometimes intense pain, sometimes indifferent.
Remembering is sometimes trustworthy, but sometimes not so.
I’ve been reading Sigmund Freud a fair amount lately. He wrote about the memories that one has of early childhood, and why those memories have a character so different from our memories from about the age of about 7 to 10, and after. Those memories of early childhood, he believed, are often “covering memories.” They are memories of things that seem mundane and not very important, but they become associated with something important that a part of our mind does not want to remember. His German word is often translated as “screen memories.” They are memories that screen out the more important things that are repressed, while still serving as a kind of stand-in for them, like a projection of them, but very distorted.
It might be better for us to hear it as “covering memories,” since we now so often use screens to remember, rather than to cover. Or, if the screens bring us video or games, perhaps they do help us to repress too.
Anyway, Freud found that it is possible, at least sometimes, to get back to the repressed memories, to the important stuff. But it is hard, and often takes a long time, and isn’t guaranteed to turn out right.
Remembering Freud on this matter can help us to remember how complicated it might be to remember, or to not remember, or to get a hold on what it is to remember.
I have a complicated memory that I’d like to share with you today. Before I share it, you need to know a little bit about me. I have been a Mennonite all of my adult life, basically since late adolescence, but I did not grow up Mennonite. When it comes to the kind of remembering a lot of people are doing today in Canada (and a lot of people do in the United States every May), Mennonites are often in a rather uncomfortable place. Our tradition has generally held that military service is not compatible with being a disciple of Jesus. I do see myself as in that tradition, and most days I’m pretty sure that’s what I think too.
But my father was in the US Army Air Corps at the end of World War II. The only reason he did not go to Europe was because the war ended. I’ve always had both family members and friends who serve. My son-in-law, whom I love as a son, has been deployed twice, first in Iraq and then in Djibouti. In that situation, I have long struggled with how I should respond when we are called to remember those who serve in this way. I’m very aware that such service is offered at great risk. Consciously. Bravely. It’s made more difficult, I think, by the fact that I have never been in a position where I had to worry about the possibility of conscription, and I was never in a place where it seemed like an option to me, such that I had to struggle with it in the first person, so to speak. I worry about being a convinced conscientious objector when I don’t know the measure of my own courage and readiness for self-sacrifice.
But here is the memory I want to share: It’s from about fifteen years ago, or a little more, I think. At the time, I was in a singing group, a barbershop quartet, with three men all of whom were older than me, and two of whom had served in World War II, and were active in the American Legion. As part of that group, I was sometimes asked to sing in settings where we were honoring veterans, and especially those who died in action. I did so, though not without some strong Mennonite guilt.
One Memorial Day I sang with the quartet for a ceremony at a cemetery, which was attended by a fairly large number of people. After the ceremony, one of the members of our quartet, one of the veterans, asked if we could go with a small group to another smaller cemetery on the other side of the town we were in. We went. Just the four of us in the quartet, and the honor guard, the men who fired the salute. That’s who went. There was no one else. We sang, the guns fired, and we were silent. We were not there for anyone else. We were not there for ourselves. We were there for the dead. We were there because, for my veteran friends, it was the thing to do to remember.
I was struck that day by how important it was to my friends, not to put on a show for the living, but to remember the dead. To not forget. I remembered that day despite all of my hesitations, despite whatever misgivings I had about what military action had been applied where, to whom, for what reason. Not because of what the dead had done, but because it was important to remember. I think I will always remember that time, in that cemetery. It’s made me more likely than some of my Mennonite friends to thank those who have served for their courage and willingness to do so, and to remember those who came back in bags, or coffins, or not at all.
I also remember Anabaptist-Mennonite fallen, who have at times accepted suffering and death rather than serving such that they might have to kill.
But I do remember both.
Canadian singer Bruce Cockburn captures some of the tension I feel, though differing some in the experience behind it, in his song “Each One Lost.”
Each one’s loss is everyone’s loss, you see.
Each one lost is a vital part of you and me.
Cockburn knows that this is true, not because we agree politically, but because we are all in this (whatever “this” is) together.
I share this with you today, hoping that you can see that remembering is not agreeing. Remembering is not endorsing. Remembering is… Remembering.
And if remembering is hard, that often makes it more important that we do it.
A friend wrote to me about cleaning out a closet, and finding things that he had written long ago. He said something about being mad, or “out of his mind” when he wrote them, and then said that they should be burned upon his death.
I, too, have things that I hope are burned upon my death. But I increasingly wonder at how this amounts to a hope that parts of my self are burned. (So “hope” needs its scare-quotes.) When I’m not “out of my mind,” as he put it, I ultimately don’t trust anyone to do that burning but God. And then I don’t really trust God, because God is always what I think as God and not really God. But I DO trust God to be God beyond all that. Mostly.
Now my friend’s missive has got me thinking about being “out of my mind,” and suspecting that’s where I am always, which is part of the problem, and also a large part of the wonder.
And now I have turned this into a blog post, which is rather like burning it, I suppose.
[This is a re-posting of a comment in response to this blog Post by Tom Morris, for whom I was once a teaching assistant, and from whom I learned some important things about teaching.]
Somewhere in my young adulthood, I caught myself assuming (and having assumed for a long time) that repetition is always an enemy of sincerity or authenticity. It’s true that repetition can become empty, but it’s not inevitable. As a teacher I’ve found that I keep repeating some of the same things year after year. The revelation comes in how it is possible to mean them, and to say them like I mean them, more deeply each time. If you think that “ritual” always has to be a bad word, then perhaps you’ve never known someone who lives by ritual as if it is their way of breathing, and who knows that without such breath they could not live.
When I teach sociology, I call my students’ attention to how many of us think of acting as merely “reciting lines,” when it is actually re-breathing, re-living, saying something again, and meaning it. With this realization, the common observation (most strikingly stated by Shakespeare) that our social life is theatrical (acting in roles) can be seen as the profound insight it is, rather than a disappointment and invitation to cynicism.
…[A] man hears what he wants to hear, and disregards the rest.”
Sure he does. We all hear what we want to hear. We all disregard the rest.
I embrace this thought as sage wisdom that applies to all of us, including me. I do it too.
Oh, and because I embrace this, even about myself, it’s always legitimate for me to impart it to you. You do it too, since we all do. I hereby solemnly admit this, and will continue to do so.
And the nice thing about this is that I also know what “the rest” is in your case. I know exactly what you are disregarding, which is really my point. (My prod.)
As long as I’ve gotten in that dig about your “rest.” Because I do see it clearly. In your case, as long as I can point out “the rest,” that’s what’s most important.
As long as I get to say what I want to say, I can (dis)regard the rest, because I met the obligation of admitting it. Why dwell on that to which I’ve made the crucial gesture of regard? It’s your “rest” upon which I’ve been anointed and commanded to prophesy.
Of course my lips are unclean too, but I will still say what I want to say, even as I ritually regard the disregarded “rest.” We can add layers and layers of “Well, you too!” and it’s always “Of course your right, I know, but then there’s you…”
As I think about all of this, I think about a rest in music. Silence which, when aptly placed, is most of the music.
May we learn as we go along not to disregard the rest.
Yes, of course I meant myself. But you too. Yes, me. Ok, I’ll stop there and only THINK “you too.”
As Merleau-Ponty and others have pointed out, the norm is not for us to think out what we are going to say and then say it. We normally find out what we are saying at the same time as others who hear us.
A friend asked me a question having to do with distinguishing real vs. fake. Here’s what I said:
When we distinguish between real and fake, there’s always a larger contextual set of expectations regarding what makes anything genuine or authentic. I wonder if some range of distance (not too far, but not too close either) is required for that judgment. Does anything really SEEM real or fake at the very moment it’s happening, as opposed to the moment later when the question arises: What was that?
The root of ‘authenticity’ ties it to owning or appropriation. Owning or appropriating are at a a remove (at least a bit of distance) from the lived. So, perhaps the real can seem fake if we expect the owned to be the lived?
And what was that, just now?
On our way to and from church services on Sunday, my wife and I drive past the ruins of a large barn. As I sit here and think about it right now, I remember it as having burned, but the foundation (which may have housed a milking parlor, perhaps?) and some of the structure are still apparent. I notice it almost every time we go by, and there is some reason why it draws me, interests me, brings out in me some kind of longing. There’s no real surprise here, as I’ve often found ruined buildings aesthetically attractive, moving, or provocative somehow. If there is a ruin somewhere that I pass by often, then it is “cleaned up,” or removed, I feel a sort of disappointment.
A couple of weeks ago, when we passed the ruined barn, my wife commented on her memories of the barn before it burned. It was very striking to me that she remembered it so clearly, so well, in so much detail. It only became clear to me as she talked about the barn as it had been that I had payed little to no attention at all to the barn until it became a ruin. This made me think about how ruins stand out for me in an environing world to which I otherwise am much too oblivious. A building can be redone, or a new building erected, and I might ask her as we pass it, “How long has that been there?” She will often smirk, because she knows my oblivion well. “At least five years, maybe ten.”
Since my wife made those comments on the barn, comments that clearly showed her focus on what was NOT a ruin, I’ve been contemplating how strongly my attention is drawn to ruins. I’ve always especially noticed church buildings, new or old, ostentatious or simple, beautiful or ugly. But ruined church buildings are among my favorite things. I’m especially moved by good black-and-white photographs of ruined places of worship.
And this especially seems significant: It’s not ANCIENT ruins that draw me. It’s “modern” ruins. It’s structures built within the strikingly short (by global standards) history of the United States of America. And especially in the Midwest and the South, semi-rural to rural.
I have not yet come up with any good explanation for my apparent partiality to such ruins, and to how for me they have a sort of religious ambiance, or resonance, or “feel” to them. But it seemed like something that I should not only mull over myself, but also toss out where some others could see, if they are interested.