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The Wonder Report: September 10, 2021
The Ebb and Flow of Memory
Thank you so much for the many emails and comments I received from so many of you after last week’s Wonder Report. I’m behind on my correspondence, but I promise to respond to each of you.
The number of responses also highlighted to me the appropriateness of this month’s theme, how during the difficulties of the last couple of years, many of us are wading through memories for clues and signs and hope for what’s ahead. I’m looking forward to digging in deeper this week.
Let’s get started.
1. Backward and Forward
In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic back in the spring of 2020, the anxiety and fear I felt almost always revolved around uncertainty and a lack of control. So I responded by gathering all the information I could — frenetically, obsessively — and by doing the only things I knew to do — baking and shopping for my family. I spent hours reading articles and tracking statistics; I gathered recipes and did contactless grocery runs for the ingredients of cakes and pies, homemade breads and cookies; and I assembled care packages for Mom and sent Amazon orders to my nieces and nephews.
Over time, though, the pandemic became more familiar. Not explainable, not predictable, and certainly not comfortable — but recognizable to my central nervous system. I had memories of something like this. My body hadn’t lived through a pandemic, but I remembered a time filled with health threats and uncertain outcomes. I knew how it felt to wait for test results and to be quarantined to protect myself and others. It snuck up on me before I even understood what was happening, but suddenly, the pandemic filled me with same fear and anxiety I’d experienced more than a decade earlier when I’d been diagnosed with cancer.
Other people I talked to were experiencing something similar: Information about COVID’s affect on the respiratory system brought back memories of asthma attacks. Crowded ERs and ICUs reminded healthcare workers and first responders of previous natural disasters. Empty shelves in the grocery store conjured memories of recession and wartime for the elderly. COVID’s disproportionate effect on minorities prompted memories of past racism and injustice. Add to that the job loss, recession, isolation, political turmoil, conflict between neighbors and family members, and we are a country — a world, even — repeatedly traumatized: First by what’s happening around us, and again and again by the memories that are associated.
Neuroscience has shown us that our fearful memories of past events never really go away. Sometimes, those memories persist, causing ongoing trauma through continual remembrance, resulting in PTSD or anxiety disorders. Other times, the memories are buried so deeply that they only resurface years later through therapy or the the experience of new trauma. This dissociative amnesia and its subsequent reversal, while controversial at times, has recently been supported by brain imaging studies that reveal differing brain activity in those with repressed memories.
Usually, though, these fearful memories fade over time, especially when the cause of fear is no longer present and the warning of the memory is no longer necessary.
When painful memories do fade, it’s through a process called “extinction,” where our brains gradually suppress the fearful memories by forming new memories that coexist in opposition. Researchers recently identified clusters of neurons called intercalated cells, or ITCs, that play a big role in extinction. In fact, scientists identified two clusters that work competitively to determine the strength between the fearful memory and the new, less fearful memory. Through a careful balance of the two clusters, our brains help us feel and act less fearfully even though the fearful memory remains.
The degrees to which our memories are repressed or replaced, and particularly the pain or insult that process may cause us, is the stuff of diagnostic manuals and psychiatry neuroscience. It’s the subject of our counseling sessions and object of desperate attempts at answers and healing. By talking about memories and trauma, I am not trying to exaggerate my own experiences or diminish anyone else's. I do, however, think understanding the realities of memory and forgetfulness in our actual brains helps us avoid simplifying the past and denying its very real impact on the present and future.
It also has me reconsidering why God often calls his people to remember some of the most traumatic events in their lives.
In some ways, the Bible could be aptly named the book of remembering. Yes, it contains prophecy and parables and poetry, but often (more than 200 times, in fact), God’s word asks us to recall, rehearse, and remember. And of all those calls to memory, more often than not readers are asked to remember some of the darkest days in human history: the fall, the flood, Israel’s enslavement, the desert wandering, the Babylonian and Persian conquests, the exile, the execution of Jesus Christ.
But that’s never the extent of it. God doesn’t call us to remember the fall without remembering his promise of salvation. He doesn’t ask us to recall the flood without also recalling the rainbow and his covenant. For every remembrance of Israel’s enslavement, we’re also to think of God’s redemption. We rehearse the desert wandering so we’ll be reminded of God’s provision and eventually the Promised Land. The conquests and exile also revealed God’s great mercy and steadfast love; we do well to remember both. And each time we remember the death of Christ, the resurrection of Christ is right there with us.
Over and over and over again, the memories of our collective trauma as humans have been replaced with the providence and provision of our heavenly Father. He’s reordering our neuron clusters so the fear and terror of life in a world filled with sin won’t overwhelm us, at least not permanently. Each time we remember the pain, we can also remember his presence with us.
Remarkably, in a way I’ll never understand, God’s own memory seems to function in a similar pattern. He’s a God who knows all and remembers all. As he says in Amos: “Indeed, I will never forget any of their deeds” (Amos 8:7). Yet He also chooses to overlook, set aside, even forget the sins of those he has forgiven, as he says in Jeremiah: “I will forgive their wrongdoing, and their sin I will no longer remember” (Jer. 31:34). This ebb and flow of remembering and forgetting somehow creates harmony between the havoc of the past and the healing of the present, like our own intercalated cells that help us cope and thrive.
When it comes to our own frail and fractured lives, I think David’s prayer captures it best:
“Do not remember the sins of my youth or my wrongdoings; Remember me according to Your faithfulness, For Your goodness’ sake, Lord.” (Psalm 25:7)
That same logic translates beyond just a prayer into an actual practice for our own faith: When we are tempted to remember all that’s wrong in our lives — both the wrong that we’ve done and the wrong that’s been done to us — we can offset those memories by recalling the Lord’s faithfulness and goodness.
You could say that’s how I’ve survived the past 18 months of being constantly reminded of one of the worst seasons of my life. Instead of stopping there, I’ve rehearsed all the ways God ministered to me and provided for me in the past, hoping and believing in faith that He continues with me and for me even now.
For more on remembering as a spiritual practice, check out this post I wrote in April 2020: “The Wonder of the Past: How Remembering God’s Mercies Helps Us Face the Present and Future with Faith”
2. Remembering 9/11
I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that Saturday is the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Every newspaper, magazine, blog, and Twitter account are filled with remembrances and commentary on how live has evolved since that terrible day.
But since we’re talking about memory this month, I wanted to highlight two recent essays that say so much about how tenuous memory really is and how hard it is to forget terrible things.
In “What Bobby McIlvaine Left Behind,” Atlantic staff writer Jennifer Senior moves eloquently between the very real memories of the family of Bobby McIlvaine, who was killed on the street outside the World Trade Center by flying debris, and the actual evidence of 9/11, including eyewitness testimony, a medical examiner’s report, and Bobby’s own journals. The two don’t always line up, but for the McIlvaine family, the memories have become more reliable than the evidence.
“Memories of traumatic experiences are a curious thing,” Senior writes. “Some are vivid; some are pale; pretty much all of them have been emended in some way, great or small. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to our curated reels. We remember the trivial and forget the exceptional. Our minds truly have minds of their own.”
In another essay for The New York Times, reporter and columnist Dan Barry explores “What Does It Mean to ‘Never Forget’?”
“Twenty years later, the command to ‘Never Forget’ retains its power, jolting us into the past whenever we see it on a hat or flag or the back of a passing car on the Belt Parkway. For all its slogan-like simplicity, these twinned words seem freighted with the complexities of guilt, obligation and even presumption — as if we could ever forget. But now that an entire generation has been born since the day, versions of the question … might be asked of all of us who lived it in some way.”
And so, in the words of Mr. Barry, I wonder:
What, exactly, do you remember about 9/11?
What stories do you tell when a casual conversation morphs into a therapy session?
What stories do you keep to yourself?
And what instantly transports you back to that deceptively sunny Tuesday morning?
3. Migration and Memory
After reading the August Hoosier Conservation newsletter about monarch butterflies, I began to wonder about the connection between memory and the migratory habits of birds, insects, and mammals. Do their perennial travel patterns have anything to do with memory? Or are they simply a genetic impulse?
The first article I read was a 2013 piece from Scientific American about multigenerational butterfly migrations. The article covers the transcontinental travel of Painted Ladies, Red Admirals, and Monarchs, and makes the bold statement that “these butterflies aren't using memories, or even passed on knowledge of the migration routes to find their way. Each generation must work it out alone with the help of genetics and instinct.”
Well, so much for that hunch. Except I couldn’t quite leave it alone. And thankfully I didn’t.
In brand new research just published in the journal Insects, Dr. Robert J Gegear from the University of Massachusetts, found that while butterflies may rely on genetics and instinct for their migratory routes, they also have "enhancements to long-term memory that enable them to minimize the amount of time and energy wasted searching for suitable nectar sources during their annual fall migration, thereby optimizing migratory performance and increasing the chance of overwinter survival.”
In other words, instinct plus memory equals survival.
4. SUMMER WRITING SERIES: When I Write … with Chelle A. Carter-Wilson
NOTE: This is the final installment of our summer series. This short essay by Chelle makes for the perfect ending. Thanks for reading and writing along.
God has always poured words into me as a way to understand my sojourn through the world. I have not always honored that gift. When I transitioned from my first career into my natural place as a writer, I embraced the childhood wish I’d forgotten, living to write.
With age, I become increasingly certain about many things. Among them is an appreciation for the wisdom of Socrates, who wrote,
True wisdom comes to each of us when we realize how little we understand about life, ourselves, and the world around us.
When I write, like American author Flannery O’Connor, I do so to discover what I know. For me, writing is a journey, and of this I am certain; I may think I know where I will land, but seldom am I right.
Writing is the one thing I can’t not do—you read that right, scribo ergo sum. I write because I am. Writing is the method by which I process information in the world, and in part, the way I learn most profoundly.
I can never predict when a scripture, a sermon, or seemingly random experience will ignite something within me that I am bound to pursue. Once it happens, I am drawn deeply into a dance, part research, part worship, part quiet listening, and then to the page. Often, my greatest revelations come in the early morning, walking the dog, squeezing in a run, islands of peace in a noisy, littered day.
When I write, I commune with the Divine. I surrender myself to listen for the still small voice, which I believe is God within me, calling me not to know, but to be open to discover. I bow humbly before the blank page, and so it begins.
When I write, I accept the dare. Are you willing to learn? Are you willing to stand the test? Are you fearless? Are you afraid? The process excites me precisely because it is entirely beyond my control. Beyond my control, but entirely divinely ordained. Often, I find myself testing what I believe, knowing that by faith, more will be revealed, and I will be better for the journey. I grow each time I fill a page.
When I write, I join generations of men and women known and those whose names will never be known to us, who have surrendered themselves as instruments of the Holy Spirit. According to author, Catholic priest, and former president of Gonzaga University Fr. Robert J. Spitzer, S.J., Ph.D.,
Our job is to follow this sense of being drawn, and to exert the effort to put words into what our heart already seems to know. The Holy Spirit will take care of the rest.
When I write, I honor God, actively practicing gratitude for this underserved gift. From something I wrote nearly 10 years ago, I offer this encouragement as a prayer,
“I am thankful that I was able to write my pleas, my prayers, talking myself through my fear using my faith. I do not believe that Christians are never afraid. I believe that we have been given resources to walk through our fears to the throne of Grace, to find our rest and refreshment and refuge there. Listen to what my wise friend wrote about writing yourself out of the dark,
I write and scratch at all the complicated inside-outness of my own head. The words, no the writing the words down, they help make sense. I draw my own road map in reverse. It happens and then I write it.
That is what we writers do. With our words and lots of Grace, we light our candles in the darkness, and then we are less afraid. Thank You Lord for worship through the words. It is my reminder, even in the scary times, that God is good.”
This is my worship. This is what happens when I write.
About Chelle A. Carter-Wilson: Each of us is the Perfect Image of God in every moment, even as we exist in a liminal state. I am an unflinching advocate for social justice...like Jesus. My ambiversion allows me to be in the world, but not quite of it. I write to discover what I know and what I don’t. Having made peace with uneasiness and most of my fears, my capacity for swearing, when necessary to get the reader’s attention, epitomizes my commitment to the precise word for every situation. Find her at Chelle A. Carter-Wilson, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
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