My bad memory
It’s good to be back at TAE and good to be here with you tonight. More than any other congregation I have served, I have the warmest memories of my time at Adat Elohim, which is why I’m so happy to be back. Of course, the reason that I enjoyed it here so much is because of you. The people I met, the friendships that developed and relationships that formed, were, and are, precious to me. It’s nice to like the people with whom you work and live. And while my affection for you is palpable, it actually causes a little embarrassment as well, because of my poor ability to recall names and facts. It’s usually a problem that can be solved by taking notes and having a good filing system. But it’s a problem when I walk up to a person I know and genuinely like and begin searching for their name like someone fumbling in the dark for their glasses on the nightstand. I may summon with all my strength to say their name, especially if it’s to introduce them to others, but too often their name remains just out of reach. The fact that it’s embarrassing to me is the first problem, but the second, and more serious problem is the way it may make you feel. I know that one of the ways we measure our importance to someone else is whether they know and use our name. Dale Carnegie, in his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, said that “Respect and acceptance stem from simple acts such as remembering a person’s name and using it whenever appropriate.” He’s right, and it bothers me to no end if my lack of ability to recall names makes anyone feel less important in my eyes. So, if I break out my camera to snap your picture, it is not to post it to Facebook or Instagram, it is so I can continue to stitch your image more closely to your name in my own mind.
Now, if some of you are thinking to yourself, “Didn’t he give a similar speech when he arrived here five years ago?” The answer is, I don’t recall. But it wouldn’t surprise me. It does make me wonder if the world would be better if we all had perfect memories. If we could recall each detail of our lives with perfect fidelity. We would never lose our keys. When arguing with members of our family about who said what, there would be no question, simply look in our personal Book of Memory that we carry in our minds and get on with life.
It’s especially important to talk about memory today because one of the names of Rosh Hashanah is Yom Hazikaron, the day of remembrance. Today, we imagine God recalling all of our deeds, good and bad, by which we will be judged – every finger we wagged, every piece of dirt we dished, every trust we broke or virtue we failed to uphold – we imagine that they are all recorded into God’s book of remembrance, only to be reviewed for judgement beginning today.
Benefits a perfect memory
Judaism has been concerned with memory for thousands of years. In the Torah God often says, “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you from there. In other words, don’t forget who is your most powerful friend. And if you remember, God says in the Psalms, “I will cause you to be remembered in every generation, so the people will praise you forever .” So, part of memory is about maintaining our reputations. We want to know who is trustworthy, and we want others to remember that we are trustworthy. I think that is why we care so much about people in authority remembering our names, because then we can develop a good reputation. Isn’t that why so many people share so much of their lives on social media. We are trying to create an image of ourselves in the minds of others. Wouldn’t it be better if we went back to the ethos of the 1960s and just let it all hang out, share everything we have to share and allow people to get used to seeing each other’s foibles along the way? In essence, that is what we do with God. The Book of Psalms says, “From heaven Adonai looks down and sees all of humanity. That is exactly what researcher Gordon Bell tried to do when he worked at Microsoft. For almost 20 years, he wore a camera around his neck all the time. It took a picture every 30 seconds and recorded every interaction, every presentation, every email or instant message. It was a God’s-eye view of his own life. He discovered that he had amassed mountains of information that burdened him more than enlightened him. Like many people who have left Facebook over the past few years, he stopped life-logging, as it is called when he said, “it wasn’t something that was bringing a lot of value to my life.” But he still holds out hope, if we only had someone to sort through, categorize, and help us make sense of every moment in our lives, we could have, he believes what amounts to a perfect autobiographical memory.
Challenges of a Perfect Memory
But some people already do, or they come really close, and they admit that it is not always a blessing. So far scientists have only studied and reported on a dozen or so people with a condition called hyperthymesia, from the Greek meaning “excessive memory.” The first person in the world diagnosed with hyperthymesia lives down the freeway in Orange County. Jill Price works as an administrator in a Jewish religious school and she has one of the most remarkable memories in the world. Ask her what she did on a particular day in the past and she can tell you. Scientists have checked her memories against a detailed diary that she has kept for decades. In one news interview, Dianne Sawyer peppered her with a series of facts: when was the first episode of the show Dallas or the last episode of the show MASH. Sawyer used a huge book of random facts and asked when Princess Grace died. Price immediately answers, “September 14, 1982-That was the day I started 12th grade.” Sawyer looks sheepish, like a disappointed Alex Trebek, “she died on September 10, 1982.” Price shakes her head, “no, that’s not right.” A few seconds later one of the producers cut in and say that it was on September 14, not the 10th, the book is wrong.
Despite being the best partner ever for trivial pursuit, Jill Price suffers with this remarkable memory. It’s like a “running movie that never stops”. Even when she wants to, Jill can’t forget. For her, every perceived slight, every awkward moment, every devastating failure is in her present. Rather than a god-like memory as being a blessing, it is a constant burden.
Our Imperfect Memory
Luckily for us, hyperthymesia is exceedingly rare. Almost no one’s mind works that way. We don’t remember every day of our life with near perfect fidelity. We have a different challenge with our memories that is as difficult to accept as believing that Price’s memory is so extraordinary. While we imagine that we have a little video in our minds that record what happened in our past and that we can replay it at will, we now know that there is a very good chance that our own memories may be wrong. This is the most difficult and possibly the most religiously significant idea that I can share. When we are called upon, to live lives of humility and reserve, we should incorporate this psychological insight into our lives. Think about some event that happened to you in your past, perhaps it was an important event that you attended or an accident that you witnessed. Rather than having a accurate recording of each event that we replay on demand, as Jill Price or Gordon Bell might, we reconstruct our memories. When I think back on my wedding, it was obviously an important day and I wanted to look my best, so I would want to wear my favorite green tie that my wife, Sandy, says goes with my hazel eyes. That’s what I remember wearing – or at least it was until I looked at the pictures. That wasn’t what I was wearing at all. That tie is my important tie, it’s my lucky tie. Marrying Sandy was the luckiest thing I could have done, so my memory inserted that tie. I constructed that memory. That’s how most of our memory works. But that means it is easy to make innocent, well-meaning memory mistakes. In fact, it is easy to create new memories out of whole cloth.
Let’s recreate a famous study where people were asked to imagine a nurse. Let’s think about his face, his height, how his wear their hair. Imagine that the nurse performs some minor procedure on you, perhaps cleans a wound or removes and IV. If we have created a sufficiently detailed picture of this nurse and this interaction, after a month, twenty-five percent of us will recall and believe that the event actually happened. Not only will we remember how we felt, we will add details, like what the nurse said or how another member of our family winced during the procedure.
I remember when my son, the same one who put his foot through the bathroom door, was driving in the passenger seat with a friend. They were adults, probably eighteen or so, and a car ran a red light and t-boned them just in front of the passenger side door. I remember rushing to the hospital and arriving at the emergency room and seeing him lying on the examination table. As I arrived, the nurse told me that he was alright, they are just running some tests just to be cautious. And remember that even though he is 6’1” and burly, when I first saw him he started to cry. I held his hand and said it’s going to be OK. The only problem is, I’m pretty sure that he was in the passenger seat, but I’m not positive. I think the oncoming car hit them in the front passenger quarter panel, because that would explain why he didn’t have serious injuries. And I think it was the nurse who told me he was going to be OK, but maybe it was the doctor or Sandy or my daughter. Or maybe it was no one and I just inserted that person into my memory by accident. I know he got into an accident and was taken to the hospital. I know he was not seriously injured and I’m pretty sure he was still in the emergency room when I arrived, but beyond that, I’m just not sure. But, every time I recall the event in my head and picture those details, even though they may be wrong, I feel more convinced that that is exactly what happened.
Knowing that our memories are so unreliable fills me with an unsettled and profound sense of humility. After all, there are often pivotal moments when our relationship with other people change because of an event that we remember. I have to be open to the possibility that I am remembering those moments incorrectly, that I may be nursing resentments for the wrong reasons. I am not calling anyone’s specific memories into question, I am just recognizing the potential unreliability of those memories. There’s no way around it. We can continue to blindly believe everything we remember, but from everything that we are learning of God’s universe, we should have confidence that some of what we know we know, we don’t know. So, what do we do when we know our memories are imperfect?
Over the past few months, we have all had a lot of losses. In our congregation, one of things that I have heard several times was the difficulty of going through the home of one of our loved ones who had died and left us with a lifetime of things: clothes, furniture, awards, letters, collections, and more. It often falls upon us as their next of kin to go through these objects and select what the keep and what to discard. I remember a school art project that I did in first or second grade where I built a wooden truck with a back gate that opens. I painted it green and wrote as clearly as I could, Barry’s Pick-up. But the P and the I of Pick-up was too close together so I always thought of it as Barry’s Rck-up. It was a forgettable art project, except my mother didn’t forget it, she kept it and cared for it for forty years until she died and then the Rck-up was returned to me. What should I do with that memory? It’s not just a memory of a second grade project, it is a memory of my mother loving me enough to keep this second grade project. Then there was the clay pinch-bowl glazed in bright yellow or the clay walrus with the broken tusks or a box filled with other objects. What do we do with all our memories?
Dr. James McGaugh, one of the neurobiologists who examined Jill Price, said that Jill may have a near perfect autobiographical memory, a blessing by most standards, but she also lacked the blessing that many of us possess the ability to selectively forget.
When someone gives a huge collection of art or artifacts to a museum, the museum curates the collection. With a compassionate but skeptical eye, they try to separate artifacts that are real from those that are fake. They then try to retain the objects that are particularly unique or valuable but only those that help the museum to tell a story. That’s what curators do; that what we have to do with the objects bequeathed to us by our family members when they leave us a house filled with memories. That’s also what we must do to the storehouse of memories that we collect as we go through our lives. Compassionate skepticism, finding valuable memories that help us tell our story faithfully.
Teshuvah – Knowing what to forget
That’s what this time of year calls upon us to do as well. First, we are called upon to reflect on our memories. Are we confident about the accuracy of our memories, especially about people whom we feel have harmed us? Sometimes we are confident enough. Even with a measure of humility about our memories, we know full well that we have been hurt by others. Then what? Should that memory be permanent? Should we leave the wine stain that our loved one spilled on our carpet as a permanent record of their mistake? The answer is a clear – maybe. Sometimes people deserve the reputation they have earned, and those memories of being hurt are an eternal beacon of warning. But what if those memories have outlived their usefulness? Then how do we respond?
A powerful answer can be found in the name of one of Joseph’s sons. If you remember, Joseph was hated by his brothers and sold into slavery after narrowly escaping execution at their hands. Decades later, he rose to power and only encountered his brothers again when they came begging for food. After toying with them, he finally revealed himself as their brother, and they wept. What is most telling is what Joseph named his two sons: Ephraim and Manasseh. On Friday evenings, as a part of Shabbat dinner, there is a tradition for the parents to bless their sons and daughters. The blessing for the sons is, “May you be like you be like Ephraim and Manasseh.” But why did Joseph use those two names? Ephraim may come from the word “fruitful,” because Joseph produce so much for Egypt. Naming his child Ephraim celebrates the blessing of fruitfulness. But the name Manasseh, comes from the word, “forget.” How is forgetting a blessing? Because Joseph was able to forget the pain and hurt his brothers caused him which made room for reconciliation. Forgetting didn’t simply happen on its own. He only allowed himself to forget when his brothers demonstrated true remorse and a change of character. Only when they demonstrated their teshuvah, their repentance, did Joseph forget.
I will do my best to remember your names, and I ask you to remember my limitations. And not just my limitations of memory, but all of our limitations of memory. Let’s remember that each of our memories may not be as true as they feel. So, let’s curate our memories carefully, with a discriminating eye and a humble heart.
If you want to see Barry’s Rck up, all I can share is the love that my mother had for me, but the truck is gone. Let’s all remember to forget wisely.