Remembering: Reward and Punishment

“It is said that when the heavenly powers gathered at their huge conference table and considered the evolution of humans on the planet Earth, they had great concerns over the erratic behavior of these particular beings. On the one hand, the courage and occasional unselfish love that humans demonstrated clearly called for a reward from heaven.  On the other hand, their tendency to behave with fearful selfishness indicated that they merited heaven’s punishment.

The powers debated for long hours trying to decide which course of action was most appropriate. Finally one junior member cut through the debate and said, ‘Let’s begin with reward.  I suggest that we bless them with a mind that is capable of remembering and imagining.  That way they can learn from the past and anticipate the future.  Therefore they will be able to plan and create great wonders.’ They all agreed that this reward was fitting so they caused it to be.

Then they turned their attention to the appropriate punishment. ‘How shall we punish them?’ they asked.  The junior member spoke quietly with a trace of sadness. ‘ We already have,’ he said, ‘the blessing will also be the punishment.’ *

 Yes, this is the same story that started our newsletter last month but if you remember I said I could only deal with the imagination last month and would address “remembering” this month.  So my apologies to those who don’t like to read things twice but I promise this is the last issue to use it.

  Our memory for past events is a wonderful capability. As stated in the story above, it can help us learn from our past. Memory helps us to maintaina solid sense of identity. We use our stories to remind us of who we have been and who we are due to our past experiences.  If we could not remember the narrative of our life, as is the case with amnesia or Alzheimer’s, we would be like the poor lass in the comedy, 50 First Dates.  She could only maintain her memory for 24 hours and then she had to start over.  This leads to many comedic situations for Drew Barrymore and Adam Sandler but in real life it would be very frustrating.  Those who suffer memory lossfind it hard to stand on solid ground as they struggle with their identity. For better or worse, our stories define us.

Memory allows us to carry with us positive reminiscence of all the people who have touched our life for the better.  We can remember the good times together and the lessons taught by those who have changed our life and helped us to grow.  But we can be punished by remembering as well.  When we rehearse memories of those who have hurt or betrayed us, we are constantly re-experiencing sadness, pain and anger.  Similarly, when we remember the pain and hurt we have caused another, we find ourselves feeling shame and guilt.  Both of these types of memory can make it hard to move towards forgiveness of self or others.   Forgiveness is the ability to let go and move on.  It doesn’t involved the necessity of forgetting–the memory will remain there.  But it does require letting go of the memory as soon as it arises and instead replacing it with the image of our self or the other in a more positive light–that of being human and having made a mistake.

*Story taken from The Tao of Forgiveness, by William Martin. 

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