Monday, July 22, 2013

The problem with memory

In today's first reading from Exodus God has freed the people from slavery, and all of the horrors associated with it. Moses is now leading them to the promised land.

And yet, the response of the people is

Were there no burial places in Egypt that you had to bring us out here to die in the desert? Why did you do this to us? Why did you bring us out of Egypt? Did we not tell you this in Egypt, when we said, ‘Leave us alone. Let us serve the Egyptians’? Far better for us to be the slaves of the Egyptians than to die in the desert.

The first part of the problem here is that our human mind can take in only a very limited amount of data in any situation, and it can retain less. Over the long term even what we think we have retained changes.

The second and more critical part of the problem is that in our lack of humility we claim to remember. And we believe that what we remember is fact. We claim to remember what really happened, when in fact our memory is consciously and unconsciously very selective. In German, there is the phenomenon called "ostalgie", a contraction of east nostalgia, a longing by some former East Germans for "the good old days" before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

What all of these erroneous nostalgic feelings have in common is also told to us in exodus. We are told that what brings about this longing for the past is fear, the text says

when the children of Israel looked up and saw that the Egyptians were on the march in pursuit of them. In great fright they cried out to the LORD.

The future is unknown and unknowable, and so it is easy for us to fear it. When we fear the future, our response is often a longing for the past, as we selectively remember it.

God's response to the cries of the people is a single command

Tell the children of Israel to go forward.

The answer to our fears and anxieties today is neither nostalgia nor retreat. The answer is the command God gives: Go Forward. And then we must let the virtues of faith and hope conquer the fear.