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Sacred Memory, Holy Amnesia

Joshua Foer’s brilliant quirky book Moonwalking with Einstein documents his year of becoming a prodigy of memory. It was a pursuit he stumbled into. As a journalist researching a piece for Slate magazine on the USA Memory Championship, he decided to take a shot at it himself. On the way, he met some of the world’s greatest (and geekiest) memorizers – Ben Pridmore, for instance, who can recall fifty thousand digits of pi, and recite the precise order of any deck of playing cards after flipping through them for 32 seconds. And he met “the most forgetful man in the world” – simply identified as EP , whose frontal brains lobes were cored like an apple by a virus, and who now forgets everything 10 seconds after it’s happened, though all his other faculties remain sharp.

It all makes for, well, memorable reading. Two overall impressions emerged for me: that too much remembering is a bad thing, and too much forgetting is as well.

One of Foer’s discoveries is that people who train their memories to accomplish prodigious feats (and it is training, not innate capacity, that does it) are no smarter than the rest of us, and in some striking instances less so. These people are mnemonic superheroes – they can memorize entire phone books, recall the exact sequence of 5 decks of randomly shuffled cards, identify the precise location of any given word in a 300 page book, and so on. But none of them navigates life more wisely or deftly than rest of us. In some cases, glaringly worse.

Brilliance is not wisdom. Mastering long random strings of numbers provides no aid to mastering life. An enlarged cranium does not make for a bigger heart. A vast memory is not the same thing as a deep soul.

But forgetting is no better. EP – the amnesiac – greets his wife each day as though he’s meeting her for the first time. “A meaningful relationship between two people,” Foer observes, “cannot sustain itself only in the present tense.” But EP is stuck there, “trapped in this limbo of an eternal present, between a past he can’t remember and a future he can’t contemplate.”

In some ways, the Christian faith is built on a resolve to both remember and forget. We remember all God has done. We learn to recall and recite his deeds, his words, his character. The central acts of our life together – word, worship, communion – are acts of remembering. “Do this,” Jesus said, “in remembrance of me.”

But just as critically, we learn to forget. “Forget the former things.” Isaiah commands. “Do not dwell on the past.” The Apostle Paul describes discipleship as “forgetting what is behind” and pressing on toward what is ahead. God himself forgives our sins, and “remembers them no more.”

Remembering and forgetting is so central to the Christian faith that most of what stalls our growth is getting it backwards: remembering what we should forget, and forgetting what we must remember.

Foer has inspired me, but not to become a prodigy of memory. He’s inspired me to practice both sacred memory and holy amnesia, to remember well and forget well.

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