Besides the ever present, albeit incremental, experience of physical decline, it is the loss of memory that my aging peers fear most. My guess is, if given the choice, most of us would choose loss of physical ability over loss of memory. Memory is how we hold ourselves together. Or perhaps more accurately, memory is the self we hold on to.
Remember, remind, recollect, recall, review....all of these words say something about the power of memory to situate us, to orient us not just to the past but to the present as well. Losing my memory feels like I am losing myself, my world.
Few things are more precious than when someone says to us, in love, "I will never forget you." A promise that is at the heart of faith is found in the word of God to us, "I will never forget you. I will remember you." It is finally what holds us even when we can no longer hold ourselves. We are held by others...and, ultimately, by the Other.
Memories can undo us as well. They can bind us to the past in ways that are detrimental to the flourishing of our lives. When our powers of memory are in full form, forgetfulness can be a liberating thing--an experience of grace. This is especially so In relation to trauma of some kind--and trauma comes in many forms. It is unlikely that we ever truly "forget" a traumatic experience. However, how we remember makes all the difference for how that memory lives in us.
Sister Joan writes, "The task, of course, is to refuse to make our memories a burden. Instead, the goal is to give them the kind of meaning that makes them precious rather than painful. What we often fail to realize is that memory is a mental function, yes; but it is also a choice. We do get to decide which of our memories of a particular time, or person, or place, or moment may shape our life in the present moment."
There is a somewhat enigmatic statement Jesus makes in the Gospel of Matthew: "Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." (Matt. 18:18). This comes in the context of his instruction on the practice of forgiveness. In the Gospel of John, when Jesus appears to his disciples after his resurrection, he says, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained." (John 20: 22-23). I think scholars are right to see the connection between these two passages. Forgiveness is a choice to unbind ourselves and others from a certain kind of remembrance. We can't do this on our own. We need a community that embodies the living memory of the One who says to us, "I will remember you."