Sunday, October 02, 2016

Total Recall

My memory is getting worse. I don’t think I’m imagining it.

Then again, if I were, how would I know, really?

On one level this alarms me. Any age-related change to the function of mind or body is a reminder that “All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls”. Or as a friend of mine is fond of saying, “We’re all going there”.

That’s for sure.

Can’t Lose What You Never Had

But thinking about the deterioration of one’s powers of recollection is also a reminder that they never worked perfectly in the first place. Any conversation with a group of old friends tends to confirm this: we recollect the same events differently even when we experienced them together. This is down to one of three causes:

Failing to register clearly what we did at the time we did it
Failing to retain the things we did register
Failing to retrieve the memory of those events accurately

But whether it’s a registry, retention or retrieval problem, the net effect is the same: we are either left unsure about what we experienced or else left very sure about what we didn’t. And this is how the human body works: some people’s memories are considerably better than others, but no memory is perfect. This article in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences says:
“Memory distortions are basic and widespread in humans, and it may be unlikely that anyone is immune.”
Scary on one level. Wonderful on another.

The Grace of God

Think about the grace of God. Man is fallen. He has defied God and eaten from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We do not know what Adam’s memory was like prior to the Fall, do we? I’m guessing it was considerably better, but the first two chapters of Genesis don’t touch on the subject, and everything after that is downhill.

What would fallen mankind be like with total, perfect recall? I suspect it would be a nightmare:
  • Imagine a marriage in which every betrayal, failure, infidelity, white lie and embarrassing moment were perfectly etched in the mind of your spouse. Sure, forgiveness and forgetting are two different things, but try maintaining a forgiving spirit in the face of constant, perfect awareness of another’s sins and ongoing sinfulness. I’m thinking the divorce rate would skyrocket and children would be pretty much a thing of the past.
  • Never mind your spouse’s failures: what if you remembered every one of your own with perfect clarity? Confidence of every sort would go out the window. Even Christians would have immense difficulty coming before God for forgiveness, not because God would have changed in any way, but because the scale of our own perversity would be so monstrously distorted in our own minds as to be entirely disabling.
  • Or imagine recalling a horrible car accident that required reconstructive surgery and months of rehabilitation with perfect clarity. You’d never leave the house again. Any sort of risk, even a minor one, would be rare in a world in which the memory of pain was perpetually present.
  • What about grief? Every single parent, child, spouse, friend or loved one would be with us forever after they died. If that sounds great, remember that the pain of losing them would remain as acute ten years after each funeral as on the day itself. Who could get out of bed in the morning? Not me.
He Remembers That We Are Dust

Getting old is no fun, and losing any level of control over our own bodies or minds is far from ideal. But the next time I start fretting about where I left my glasses, I need to stop and remind myself that things could be a whole lot worse. Total recall in our current state would be an absolute horror.

What may appear at first to be a flaw in the human design, or part of the curse (or, to the secular mind, proof of Darwin’s theory of natural selection) is to the believer an evidence of the kindness and mercy of God. It’s proof of his great compassion:
“For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust.”

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