The other day, I realized what a terrible memory I have.
I made that realization because I remembered something very clearly that happened a few years ago, and it surprised me how well I could remember it. Because I am usually forgetful.
What makes and keeps memory sharp, I wondered? Nature? Nurture? Sudoku puzzles?
It’s not like bad memory runs in my family. My youngest sister Jenna has a scarily perfect memory. You could ask her what happened on June 21, 2002, and she would probably be able to give you a fairly accurate sketch of events off the top of her head. (Maybe exaggerating, but only slightly.) Did the memory genes just skip me?
Is it a symptom of getting old(er)? I don’t think so. My mental sharpness doesn’t seem to have declined in other areas.
As I verbally processed each of these possibilities to my oh-so-patient-husband in the driver’s seat beside me, I finally landed on the conclusion that I think I built a bad memory on purpose.
Not consciously on purpose–subconsciously on purpose, if there is such a thing. I think I built a bad memory because I’ve moved a lot. As in, like 19 times (some of those were inter-state moves). I was a military kid, but I can’t blame the military alone for my displacement and bad memory, because I have chosen to move myself as many times as the military moved me.
Moving involves various forms of physical and psychological distress. The acts of being uprooted from a community of support, of saying goodbye after goodbye after goodbye, of promising to keep in close touch (and fully intending to do so) and knowing you probably won’t, of leaving familiar physical surroundings, of shedding possessions and knowing that some will end up lost or broken, of living far from family–those are cumulative layers of pain and grief.
Then, if you’re like me, and you do it over a dozen times…well, you figure out ways to cope. I think the way I have learned to cope is by forgetting.
I don’t sit down and burn or delete photos and I don’t exactly try to forget things. But when something in New Place suggests something to me about Old Place, I decline its invitation to connect with the past. It’s kind of like when your friendship with someone grows a little cold, and you see them at a party and have to spend the evening strategically avoiding them. I won’t look my memories in the eye. I cross the street to walk on the other side.
The way my mind has found to deal with the grief of displacement is to immerse myself fully in the present and try to keep the past, and its regrets or nostalgia, from pushing their way in. It’s how I keep good memories from making me sad and bad memories from making me bitter. After a while, I don’t have to avoid memories. I simply, literally, physically cannot remember.
One of the problems that’s come up is that, when you’re in a place long enough, the negative experiences pile up (along with the positive experiences, of course). My reaction to that accumulation is wanting to move. It’s a fight-or-flight response. I grow weary of fighting, and by that I don’t mean arguing (necessarily); it’s just that all relationships take lots of hard work and are sometimes characterized by misplaced expectations and miscommunication. Instead of continuing to push through, communicate, love, show grace, ask for forgiveness, I want to just run away and start over. Because I know that in a short while, I’ll forget.
There is one notable exception. In one strand of my life from the past 14 years, my memories are very sound, detailed, and complete. That’s my life with Tim. I remember minute details of our relationship–meeting him when I was 17, our dating relationship a few years later, our engagement, the almost-12 years we’ve spent married. I haven’t had to build any coping mechanisms around him, because our relationship is permanent. And the memories are really, really good.
When I’m finished with my PhD, we’ll move next to wherever Tim wants to go for his PhD. But hopefully we’ll get jobs one day at a university. If we want established careers with tenure, we’ll need to stay put, and I’ll need to find a way to be at peace with no more moves. I want to enjoy the depth of long-term friendships. I want to put down roots. I want to communicate, love, show grace, and ask for forgiveness.
I want to love people–without an exit strategy. In a broken world, where you have to deal with the good, the bad, and the ugly if you want to be connected to your community, that’s not necessarily an easy thing to do, but it’s what Christ did, and it’s also what God has called his people to do.