Forgiving and Forgetting
There is fascinating new research now being conducted in the field of “Superior Autobiographical Memory.” Researchers have found a small group of people, only about a dozen or so here in North America, which remembers almost everything about their lives. And when I say “almost everything,” I mean almost everything.
For example, there is Louise Owens, a woman now in her late thirties, who can recall every single day of her life since she was 11. She can call from her memory most any detail of her existence down to every meal she has ever eaten, the exact clothes she wore on any given day, and when asked about a specific date, she can even tell you what the weather was like on that date.
I would love to have more than a few conversations with this small but remarkable group. I would love to see them put their near super-human powers to work (or watch one of them demolish a game of Trivial Pursuit with a group of unsuspecting players).
And I hope we learn a great deal about the human brain from them, maybe even make some advances in the treatment of Alzheimer’s or dementia because of them; but I do not envy them. No, I have a hard enough time trying to forget some of the things from my past as it is. I can’t imagine the mental anguish if I had Superior Autobiographical Memory.
The things that lodge like splinters in our brains the deepest are those times and occasions when others have hurt us badly; when we have been wronged; or when we have been violated, mistreated, cheated or harmed. It is impossible to forget these things no matter how many times we are told that “time heals all wounds” and no matter how many times we are counseled by our pastor, priest, or rabbi that we should “forgive and forget.” Forget? No amount of counseling, therapy, hospitalization, or medication – nothing short of a lobotomy – could erase the pain from our memory banks.
So most of us do not have to have invincible brain power to recall every day of our lives to suffer from the past; just a few of the days that we remember all too well are sufficiently painful enough. At least those few days are enough for me. The answer to this pain is not in the forgetting. The answer is in the forgiving. I don’t use the word “forgiving” or “forgiveness” glibly, because forgiveness isn’t easy. It certainly isn’t some buzzword from a sermon or a trivial, corny bumper sticker that says something like “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.”
No, forgiveness is the only answer because it is the only thing that truly deals with our deep, bleeding, unforgettable hurts: Unfaithfulness by a spouse, betrayal by a business partner, abuse by a parent, or an irresponsible act that harmed or killed one of our family members.
We can’t just dismiss these offenses with a casual wave, and forget about them as if they never happened. We cannot and we should not forget these, but for our own health and for the sake of our future, we must forgive.
Lewis Smedes, who always has an enlightened word on the subject of forgiveness, said, “When we forgive evil we do not excuse it, we do not tolerate it, we do not smother it. We look the evil full in the face, call it what it is, let its horror shock and stun and enrage us, and only then do we forgive.”
What does this mean? It means we improbably but practically work out the eternal words of the Apostle Paul who said, “Love does not demand its own way. Love keeps no record of being wronged.” Purging the records doesn’t mean we forget. It means we give up on keeping the score, and we give up on our desire for vengeance. Then we might just find that in letting go of our need to retaliate, we can also let go of so many of our painful memories.