Volf on memory: Is it a sword or shield?

Volf’s second chapter (Memory: a shield and a sword) considers whether memory “saves us”–contributes to our well-being, or whether it leads us into destruction. He plays off Elie Wiesel’s idea that salvation is found in remembering and not forgetting. But is this always true, Volf asks, as memory of pain can lead to our inflicting pain on others.

Here are some of his ideas/questions from the chapter:

1. Remembering painful past events is going to happen.
2. Memory is not a passive event but somethings that “breaks into the present and gains a new lease on life” (21).
3. Not only does memory break in on our present but it also shapes our identity.
4. Our identity is not only shaped by our own memory but also by what other people “remember” and tell us about ourselves.
5. Identity does not develop from averaging all our experiences but collecting some “facts” and rejecting others. The experiences of trauma and abuse (especially as a child) form a rubric which shapes which memories are kept and which are rejected. (By the way, I am not suggesting that we often really forget certain memories. What we do is we file certain experiences away as “not really me” and so we do not let them shape who we are. If I see myself as a failure, then I am going to “forget” the various successes and remember the failures.

If memory is going to contribute to our well-being, how might it do that? Volf suggests 4 ways that must be interconnected:
1. Healing. The simple act of repeatedly remembering trauma and related feelings while viewing them in a new light–the light of truth from the Lord’s perspective. In this way Volf says that memory is the “prerequisite” for healing but interpretation is the means by which healing takes place.
2. Acknowledgement. Truthful remembering is part of the means of healing. “If no one remembers a misdeed or names it publicly, it remains invisible. To the outside observer, its victim is not a victim and its perpetrator is not a perpetrator: both are misperceived because the suffering of the one and the violence of the other go unseen” (29). Truthful acknowledgement is a hairy subject. It suggests that victims may not remember accurately. While undoubtedly true that certain facts are not remembered correctly (we may forget a loving act by an otherwise abusive person or we may misperceive the intensity of some feeling), we must be careful not to assume that we have made up, wholesale, abusive histories.
3. Solidarity. Remembering our own suffering can make us feel connected to other people’s suffering and motivated to do something about it.
4. Protection. Volf quotes Wiesel again, “memory of evil will serve as a shield against evil.”

Finally, Volf concludes this chapter with a problem. He notes that “easily does the protective shield of memory morph into a sword of violence” (33). Memory all too often wounds. It maintains lies about oneself and the world. It condemns the victim and the perpetrators both to repeat and be imprisoned by the past. In order to avoid these problems, memories must be redeemed so that they bridge the chasm between adversaries and lead all to live in the present and not merely the past.

But, here’s a challenging question! Wouldn’t it be best for those who suffer abuse and trauma to forget it? Volf seems to suggest that that is what St. Augustine thought: “The life of the blessed involves not only remembering past wrongs but also forgetting–forgetting how suffering and evil felt.” (23). Forget abuse? No. But maybe fade the intensity and definitely change the meaning and interpretation of the self. Here’s why we might not want to forget.  If I believed that I live in a world ruled by a sovereign God, then I have to also believe that the experiences that shape me and make me who I am are part of his redemptive plan for me. This does not mean that Joseph’s experience in the jails of Egypt was good or bearable or something to celebrate, but that his presence in them shaped him in ways, though we might never know how, that enabled him to lead an entire nation. Maybe this is why many people who suffer greatly have the sentiment that they would not change the events for it shaped their lives.

A thought of hope for those struggling with the shaping power of trauma in their lives: We are not, as Volf points out, slaves to our memories and our past. We can be shaped by our hope for a future. We can resist certain distortions of the truth and demand that the promises of God for our present and future have greater power to stitch a different quilt (story).


Filed under Abuse, suffering

2 responses to “Volf on memory: Is it a sword or shield?

  1. Wow! Sounds like a fascinating book. I know Volf has had his share of brokeness and it sounds like he is trying to work out this biblical concepts in the context of his life.

  2. It is a great book. I have to read it slow since so many sentences are weighty and deserve a pondering.

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