When Memory Fails Us (God Does Not)

I am thought of, therefore I am

Sam Bush / 3.23.22

One of Norm Macdonald’s greatest jokes was about an older man named Jim who is having memory trouble. Jim goes to the doctor and is prescribed medicine for better memory recall. Later, when his friend asks him if the medicine works, Jim says that it works like a charm, but when asked for the name of the medicine, Jim can’t remember. “What’s the  name of that flower? That flower you take on a date with a woman?” he asks. Jim’s friend keeps guessing the names of flowers — tulip, carnation… — until Jim describes it as “the romantic one. Red and long stemmed.” When the friend finally guesses “rose,” Jim says, “Yes, that’s it!” before yelling to the next room, “ROSE! What was the name of that medicine the doctor gave me for my memory?!”

The joke lands, of course, because of the surprise twist at the end. but its appeal is universal from the start. Who doesn’t struggle with memory loss in some way? Can you remember what you had for dinner two nights ago? Have you ever forgotten someone’s name seconds after they told it to you? These kinds of mental blunders are often embarrassing because they serve as the closest firsthand experiences that show that we are not in control of ourselves. Of course, there are an endless amount of tips to help maintain an active memory, from getting more sleep, to making checklists, to adopting a Mediterranean diet. All the while, what we remember and what we forget seems to depend on a power beyond our grasp.

Memory still looms as a mystery in science. In Vox, Brian Resnick recently explained how we’re not perfectly sure how the brain physically sorts and stores information. Resnick spoke with Wilma Bainbridge, a cognitive neuroscientist who led an experiment where participants were asked to look at eight nondescript images (a stop sign, a beach, someone’s cubicle) and had to guess which ones they would remember. While some images were actually more memorable, they were rarely the ones people expected to remember. “Our intuitions are really bad,” Bainbridge admitted. Even offering money to incentivize participants to remember or forget a certain face doesn’t really make a difference. “Effort isn’t really able to override this effect,” she says. Nothing, not even a reward, could make the participants able to forget the memorable ones or remember the forgettable ones.

In real human situations, our faulty memories can be a source of both comfort and harm. On the one hand, the fact that humans seem hardwired to forget may actually be one of our better qualities. Consider the goldfish, the happiest animal in the world because of its 10-second memory. Recent studies, in fact, have shown that a healthy brain quickly forgets most of its intake. This is what Scott Small was exploring in his Times article, “We Will Forget Much of the Pandemic. That’s a Good Thing.”  Forgetfulness can often be a gateway to letting go and to peace of mind.

On the other hand, a failing memory can threaten to take away one’s identity. Even for those with highly adept memories, things like Alzheimer’s take the inevitability of forgetfulness to the extreme. Who do you become if your memory is subject to a disease? What becomes of your marriage if you fail to recognize your own spouse? What becomes of your faith if you forget who Jesus is? In Ministry with the Forgotten, the Methodist bishop Kenneth Carder details his experience caring for his wife Linda for ten years after she was diagnosed with dementia.

For Carder, his wife’s struggle with dementia showed him that the study of memory is essentially a study in deficiency. “Memory functions more like an artist than a technician, a poet more than a stenographer,” he writes. Each recollection is a combination of events, interpretations, contexts and relationships. The way you remember something may very well be affected by how you’re currently digesting your lunch or your current mood or by someone else’s misguided narrative. The subconscious has a knack for editing memories like a film director. It reimagines, reinterprets and reinvents, warping history into fiction. 

We are so connected to our own histories that to lose one’s memory threatens the total loss of oneself. “I think, therefore I am,” is, at least on some level, excluding the 6 million Americans living with Alzheimer’s today (a number that’s expected to rise to nearly 14 million by 2050). Carder goes on to say that people with various forms of dementia remind us that the core of our identity does not hinge on what we remember:

Modern culture and much of modern Christianity lead us to think that our personhood is constituted by our ability to reason, to act, and to produce. But from the wilderness, we learn that beyond anything we can think, do, or produce, we are known and loved by God. We are held in God’s memory even when our own fails us.

One’s primary purpose in life is not to remember, but to be remembered by God. As Karl Barth said, “I am thought of, therefore I am.” When memory fails us, God does not. The central focus of Scripture is not human recollection of God’s mercies, but of God’s unfailing memory of His promises. He remembers his covenant (Gen. 9:14, Ex. 2:24), He inscribes us on the palms of his hands and will not forget us (Isa 49:16). And yet, even God’s own memory is deficient, albeit out of choice. There is one thing He is constantly forgetting. He forgives our iniquities and remembers our sins no more (Heb. 8:12). Our sins, you see, are like God’s car keys. For the life of him, he just can’t remember where he put them. Lucky for us, it doesn’t seem to bother him that much.

subscribe to the Mockingbird newsletter


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *