Purpose in Memory

Credit: Thomas Shahan
Credit: Thomas Shahan
“The worst part of holding the memories is not the pain. It’s the loneliness of it. Memories need to be shared.” – Lois Lowry, The Giver

I’ve been thinking a lot about purpose lately. I believe that everyone has some path in life they’re meant to follow. I can’t even begin to justify my belief and I won’t offer an apologetic for it here. It isn’t a “God has a purpose for you” kind of thing. I’ve always believed this, and I’ve always struggled with the idea that I’m not doing what I’m supposed to be doing.

All of our lives revolve around a theme. Maybe you call it a passion or a calling, but it’s all the same. When you evaluate your life, what overarching theme do you see?

I always thought my theme was helping others. But, how? I’m not exactly a “people person”. When I laid my life out in front of me and really looked, I saw something different.

I remember. That’s the theme of my life. I remember.

It’s why I’ve always loved genealogy. It’s a little like resurrecting the dead and forgotten.

It’s why I love history, hoard old photos, and can’t get enough of listening to people’s stories.

It’s why I write.

About fourteen years ago I was driving down to Kansas by myself. I stopped at some outlet bookstore and bought several books on tape from the clearance table. The Giver was one of them.

In one scene, Jonas becomes angry with some boys who are playing war. Jonas had just been given the memory of what war had been like. The rest of his community has forgotten. They’ve forgotten what it’s like to be hungry or to suffer. In the process of blocking out these memories, they’ve also forgotten how to love.

I’ve gotten some advice over the years from well-meaning people. Forget the past. Live in the present. Focus on the future. Always, always, always march toward the horizon and never look back.

My Facebook feed gets flooded with similar statements in pretty fonts. Forget the bad. Forget what came before. Stop thinking about yesterday and live for today.

Why does it have to be one or the other? Why can’t we continue moving forward while carrying our memories with us?

I’ve tried to forget. I’ve told myself, “Suck it up, buttercup. Move on.” It was a crime against my own nature. It didn’t work. It left a path of destruction in my life, and I regrettably touched others with some of that. I went around whining, “I’m not doing what I’m supposed to be doing” for years, and I was right. I’d cut myself off from what defines me most.

Forgetting my past didn’t work because there’s no giant eraser we can tackle the past with. Just because you aren’t actively looking at something doesn’t mean it isn’t still there, hovering behind you all the time.

I’m not saying it’s healthy to dwell in the past. But, we don’t have to completely ignore it either. There are lessons to be learned as well as people and events that shouldn’t be forgotten.

I’ll be honest. I was afraid of going back there. OK, so it was more a mix of fear and anger and shame that kept me from looking back for so long. Sometimes we see our past as some labyrinth-like cavern with a creaky sign that says “THE PAST” scrawled out in blood. We don’t want to get lost down those twisting passages, with no light to find our way back out. What if we get stuck down there with the boogeyman of our past emotional states?

When I started spelunking through my life, I expected a difficult trek. And some of it was. But, I came to so many places I’d been afraid of that weren’t nearly as bad as I’d made them out to be. I even found a lot of spots that were pretty fun to climb through and (dare I admit) made me laugh. And in some tight places I found something I really didn’t expect to find buried down there. I found some forgiveness—for others as well as for myself.

Like Jonas’ community, I’d cut myself off from some of the pain, but in doing so I’d cut myself off from all of the good stuff as well. There are some pretty awesome people and memories hiding out in my past, even some pretty great memories of people who hurt me later on. For me, losing all the good isn’t worth being able to block out the bad.

That might not be the case with you. Maybe you’re afraid of climbing around in your own past. I can understand why some people wouldn’t want to risk it. But, you have to understand there’s no such thing as my past and your past. All of our caverns intersect at various points along the way. In many ways, we own a shared past.

So, maybe that’s my purpose. Maybe that’s how I’m supposed to help other people. Maybe I’m supposed to remember some things for all of us. Because none of us should be forgotten. Because we can’t let our communities sacrifice beauty and love to block out our painful memories.


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