The past, memory, and who we really are

I realized I lost a lot of my personal pictures today.

It struck me really hard as I come to grips with knowing a lot of the tangible reminders I have of a period of time in my daughter’s life and a handful of wonderful trips I’ve taken may be gone for good.

This comes on the heels of me thinking a great deal about the fleetingness of life and the meaning of our memories.

Within the last few years, family history has become a hobby of mine, so I spend a good deal of time trying to find out information about the thousands of people whom my existence is reliant on.  It’s incredibly humbling searching for signs of these mostly ordinary folk whose record of existence is in many ways completely gone.

For many, there are no pictures.  For some, there are barely any written words.  But they lived real lives; loved people and had people who loved them; and contributed to the existence of hundreds of other people who know absolutely nothing about them and by and large don’t care to.

As the incredibly touching movie “Coco” asks poignantly, what happens to people when they are completely forgotten?

And of course the thought at the back of our minds is: one day, that’s going to be me.

Eventually, no one will remember me.  As the years melt by once we’re dead and buried, and the generations multiply, someday there won’t be a soul around who even remembers we were once real.

It’s deeply troubling existential stuff.  Or, at least, it can be.  It’s one of the reasons I hope in the Christian faith – a hope that rests in everything about us meaning something eternally, because God knows it even if no one else does.

There’s truth in that regardless, God or not – the things we do and say while we’re alive ripple and echo beyond just ourselves, impacting countless others through butterfly effects so subtle and small yet so potentially profound that we’re truly changing the course of humanity every day of our lives in unquantifiable ways.

But, then, whether humanity itself ultimately means anything at all brings the God-question back around.

It appears that our society is losing sight of meaning in deeper and more profound ways, the disassociation with purpose and meaning being what I attribute many contemporary tragedies to – where human life loses all ultimate meaning, therein lies the despair and pointlessness that can drive a person to act out horrifically in an attempt to grasp at some form of notoriety, however dark, twisted and demonic that notoriety may be.

There’s an even deeper beauty to the Christian hope and what it means to who we are than having our actions be remembered, though.

More than simply memory, our actions become even more critical to defining who we truly are than even many Christians – today, so often imbued with what Dietrich Bonhoeffer labeled “cheap grace” – realize.

Because, who are we, really?  From the perspective of a Christian teleology, are we fully defined simply by the sum of all our past experiences culminated at any single given point we mark as “the present”?  That appears to be what most of us believe.

I’d argue that isn’t so.  If that were true, it only cherishes the present moment (which is constantly leaving us) at the expense of “the past,” which is by far the fuller story of who each of us is.

The Christian often belittles the past in the name of moving beyond the mistakes we’ve made and, true enough, that’s important!  But paradoxically, we too often cheapen forgiveness and grace in our embrace of it, abusing the fact that it’s always on offer, thus not living our lives (ironically) as if this moment I’m living in (the “present”) is, every single time, what “matters.”

Who I am now, and now, and now…in that moment (and these moments are all we have as we progress through life and time), I am defined.  That doesn’t mean there is no forgiveness for mistakes, or that people can’t change, but that the present should be filled with a greater sense of seriousness than the typical Christian gives it, the Christian who holds back due to the assurance of grace to forgive.

Because if God is God and this thing of life we’re doing means what we think it means, then when I stand before the Judgment Throne at the end of time and consequently outside of time, I will stand not as the person I am now, or now, but as every person I’ve ever been.

On display will be the fullness of who I am, and that true fullness is reflected in every single moment of my life – who I truly am is never only who I am in my current state, but every iteration of who I’ve been: every single moment of my life.

I own my past more than simply as baggage to lug around – it’s truly me, just as much as the me you know today is, even though that guy is different than he was 10 years ago.  That’s both comforting and terrifying, but it should lead us to put far more weight on our actions than we often do.

I’ve long rested on the laurels that I’m free to mess up because God will forgive me, but that’s immature Christianity, and ignorance of what I’m truly building in my life.

That little boy 30 years ago is still real and part of me, more than in just a figurative sense.  That young and immature 20-something who did far more damage than he realized he was doing is likewise still real and part of me.

The good news about that is, despite how we mess up, sanctification and redemption work on the totality of who we are – it does work retroactively and free us from the guilt and condemnation of what we’ve experienced while likewise not erasing it.

The true Christian perspective on daily life should thus be one not terrified of making mistakes, but likewise not one all-too-willing to do so because we know forgiveness is right there whenever we want it.

Every moment we leave behind, every memory, is eternal and not ephemeral.  They matter, whether we have pictures to remember them by or whether they fade out of all human memory.  Each of them are part of who we eternally are.


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