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What good are memories?

Here’s what I’m getting at. Memorial Day is supposed to be a time to remember those who died in the nation’s service, but my father refused to join the VFW or go to the Memorial Day Parade back home.

He had flown 50 missions in a B-26 bomber during the Korean War, and I think, if he were alive today, he would be diagnosed as having PTSD. It was scary. On some of their bombing runs, there would be anti-aircraft flak going off all around them. The memories of war haunted him.

So what do you do with the bad memories you carry around? On the one hand, bad memories, if not processed, can poison almost every interaction we have. A friend of mine and I were talking about a mutual acquaintance who always looked at the negative side of things, and my friend made the comment, “Her approach to life seems to come from unhealed pain.”

On the other hand, I know folks—most of them being senior citizens—who have gone through a lot of hard times. You know—”stony the road we trod, bitter the chastening rod.” But, somehow by God’s grace they have integrated that bitterness into their character in ways that have made them sweet and wise and patient with life.

Then there are the good memories that some folks idealize and then get stuck in. “The good old days” is what they call them. They can become, like bad memories, a prison which prevents people from moving on in life.  

Good memories can also be used, of course, as a solid foundation on which folks can build their lives. That is what parents try to give their children.

And finally, there are some of us who have selective memories, folks who so closely identify with their tribe, for example, that they deny the dark side of their ancestors’ history while exaggerating their nobility.  

I found a website called The Southern Agrarian in which the following paragraph appeared:

“That which makes The South such a beautiful culture is sadly missing in today’s “politically correct,” multi-cultural world. It takes a conscious effort to recover that lost culture and way of life. The Southern Agrarian is where you’ll find those who try to live life with the quiet dignity that the title Gentleman or Lady calls for, while sinking our roots deep into our native Southern soil. The goal of The Southern Agrarian is to remind you and those around you that The Lost Cause was an ideal worth fighting for – and worth making a part of our lives today.”

The memories included in The Southern Agrarian are of course selective. Those who wrote the above paragraph failed to mention what another website did acknowledge.

“Southern culture valued a behavioral code in which men’s honor, based on the domination of others and the protection of southern white womanhood, stood as the highest good. Slavery also decreased class tensions, binding whites together on the basis of race despite their inequalities of wealth.” 

Mothers’ Day, which we celebrated a week and a half ago, is of course another opportunity for selective memory. The Hallmark cards we give our moms tend to be exercises in hagiography, the biography of saints or idealized persons. One comedian, after reading a card his mother received, quipped, “That ain’t the woman who raised me!”

So here’s a metaphor to consider pondering for Memorial Day. When driving from Forest Park to the Morton Arboretum, say, it’s important to look through the windshield more than through the rearview mirror.

Every once in a while it is extremely important to see what’s behind you in the mirror, especially when you are changing lanes. But to make progress, you have to look ahead more than checking up on where you’ve just been.

Clearly, it is true that those who fail to study history are bound to repeat it. But memories are meant to be spiritual foundations, on which we build the future. Solid foundations are to be constructed when we are children. They are not meant to be lived in.

I’m not sure how to apply the above to where we in Forest Park are at as a community. We seem to be focused on what lies ahead more than where we’ve been. And that’s good, right? 

But, part of my uncertainty comes from the fact that we come from so many different psychological, cultural, religious, and geographical places that when we do look in the rear view mirror we have such diverse memories that it at times is hard to form any kind of shared identity.  

If you have ever worked on a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle, you know that the diversity of pieces doesn’t form a unified picture without a lot of patient, hard work. Which makes me wonder as we approach Memorial Day, if we should AS A COMMUNITY invest significantly more time than we do now in coffee shops, restaurants, parks, taverns and around kitchen tables sharing memories with people we need to get to know better, to get below the surface where our spiritual foundations (aka memories) lie hidden until we share them. 

But then—so we don’t get stuck in a debate about who had it worse and who was privileged—after looking in our individual rear view mirrors, we could look forward and together write a shared vision of the future of our town—a picture on the cover of the puzzle box, if you will—which will have the power to guide us in how to put all those diverse pieces fit together into an attractive, comprehensible whole.

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