What Memory Would You Take To Eternity?

After Life

If you could remember only one moment from your entire life, what would it be? Or, to put it differently, if eternity (heaven) consisted of reliving that single experience forever, what moment would you choose?

Before I reveal to you how I would answer that question, let me tell you about a movie that deals with this rather odd dilemma. It is a 13-year-old Japanese film called After Life. It depicts a group of recently deceased people who assemble at a sort of transit station on their way to whatever is “beyond.” They are told that they will have several days to decide on their own version of eternity, which will consist of living forever in whatever single moment they choose from their just-ended life history on earth. They are each assigned a counselor of sorts to assist them with the choice.

To live “in the moment” necessitates that they give up that part of themselves that, like all humans, allows them to look back and remember the past, as well as to look forward and anticipate the future. Experiencing whatever large or small single event is most precious involves sensations and feelings attached only to that slice of time rather than to anything else, even including other positive relationships, experiences, and events. And so, perhaps not surprisingly, each person in the movie struggles with relinquishing all of their other memories, relationships, and daily preoccupations in return for an eternity of living within a single instant in time with nothing else on their mind.

In effect, what the movie is indirectly asking us is to determine how we value things. That is, to decide what means the most to us; or, perhaps, what experience has been the most pleasant or exciting.

Much depends on when one is asked. I am quite certain that I would have chosen a different moment if I had to make the choice in my 20s rather than in my 60s. Not only do memories change (often losing intensity) as we revisit them, but their relative importance is altered as new ones are woven into the tapestry of our lives. In my 20s, I might have wished to relive the intense excitement of a personal athletic triumph, or winning an award, or a blissful sexual encounter. If you’d asked me in my teens, I might have chosen a particularly thrilling baseball game I’d attended. But, as I think about those kinds of things at some distance, I know I wouldn’t choose them today.

You might ask “why?” Well, I’ve seen lots of good ballgames and I probably care less about sports than I ever have at any time in my life, even though I still enjoy these as a spectator. Maybe, as a Chicago fan, I simply have seen too many defeats for one lifetime! But, spectator sports are more about someone else’s experience that you vicariously participate in, rather than your own. So if I were to choose one moment from my life to relive, it wouldn’t involve watching someone else perform. And, since my own athletic successes were quite modest, that category gets knocked off the list of potential winners in the area of “reliving.”

"The Dugout" by Norman Rockwell

“The Dugout” by Norman Rockwell

OK, what about sex? I knew you would ask. For most young men, I suspect that sex is the dominating preoccupation, at least until they lose their virginity. Then, assuming that they are able to have sexual relations with some frequency, it becomes a thing that fades as a singular focus. Yes, I know that there are people for whom it appears to be the only issue that matters. A pity. While it is an important part of life, I doubt that most people (even including men), as they cross over the threshold into heaven, would say, “Boy, if I could only get laid one more time!”

Nor do I think that I, personally, would like eternity to consist of the intensity of a continuous orgasm. I guess that what I’m getting at here is that the physically stirring nature of that experience isn’t any different (I suspect) from what a dog or a cat or a mountain lion feels in the moment of coitus. For eternity I’d choose something that involved every part of me, not just the physical part.

What else might I consider? Well, I met and interviewed my hero, Carlo Maria Giulini, when I was 31. Memorable, but not really a contender. I have heard lots of terrific musical performances and attended a few plays that had me spinning for days. Again, watching and listening, whether it is baseball or Brahms, aren’t as valuable as those endeavors that you do yourself. And while I had countless profound experiences in doing psychotherapy, I doubt that even a brain surgeon would take a single successful operation with him or her into a personalized version of heaven. Nor is there anything unique about such things, as a rule. No, I think the actions or experiences that you repeat probably don’t have the special meaning that is required for you to cherish them forever, above those that happened just once.

Well that narrows the focus, doesn’t it? The contenders for your afterlife usually have to consist of things that you participated in (not watched) and that happened only once. Let me tell you about three such instances that I think about from time to time.

My mother, Jeanette Stein, probably in the late 1930s or early 1940s

My mother, Jeanette Stein, probably in the late 1930s or early 1940s

In her 83rd year, my mother’s unhappy life was particularly difficult. Not only was she in great physical pain, but she’d lost my dad several months before. My visits with her had frequently and historically been unpleasant. She’d accumulated much anger in the course of her time on earth and those closest to her were often targeted. My weekly journey to see her was dutiful, but both of us knew that I didn’t perform the obligation out of a sense of joyous anticipation.

Mom was a very clever lady who could get under your skin with the speed and deftness of a chef at a Japanese steakhouse. Even though I had learned how to deflect her sharp-edged and pointed affronts, I did have to be on my toes or deaden myself to the jabs that could be expected. But, one Sunday, everything changed.

This woman, who had told me more than once that she prayed to her mother and my father to die as soon as possible, was in a particularly light mood. She didn’t seem to be in pain that day and was the funny, warm, joyous being I had not seen in decades. We laughed, we talked, we showed affection. It was a small miracle.

When I returned the next week, things were back to “business as usual.” And one week later, she was unconscious when I arrived and dead within days. But that Sunday two weeks before her demise was a gift. When I think back, it is with a mixture of happiness and a tear or two. I got to see, for a brief moment, the best of my mother just before the close. And, I got to be with a woman I loved — briefly, finally, free of pain — the emotional and physical pain that was her nearly constant companion for much of her life.

The second contender for the memory I’d take to eternity will be no surprise to the parents among you. Like many dads, I was in the operating room with my wife at the birth of our first child. It had been a labor that started at about 1:00 in the morning and ended at 9:34 in the evening. Like any good husband, I held my wife’s hand, coached her on the breathing exercises we’d learned to minimize her pain, and urged her to “push” when the MD so instructed. And, when our first-born finally emerged, it was another small miracle. The emotional experience involved love, exhaustion, amazement, gratitude — the kind of mixture that is impossible to imagine, reproduce, or describe.

The Kiss

Only one more memory then, dear reader. This is one that has grown on me over the years. I had the good luck as a young man to kiss a sufficient number of attractive women to know that some were good kissers and some not so good. Some of those kisses by those kissers were enthusiastic, some indifferent, some creative, some passionate, and some loving. Some of those osculations by those osculators were ravenous, some languorous, some long, some short, some almost painful. But the one that I think about every week is the first time I kissed my wife Aleta. It was on the steps of her mother’s house, where Aleta lived, ending our first-ever date. It is doubtless colored by the life we’ve had together, our still growing love, our children, our ups and downs. But it was also memorable even at that time, without the accumulated experiences of more than 40 years since. It warms me and reminds me of how lucky I am to have met and married the best and most beautiful person I have ever known.

Well, by now you realize that the choice was really not a choice at all. It is the memory of that kiss that I’d take to eternity. That would be a heaven worth waiting for. But — lucky me — I get to relive some version of the moment every day.

The last image is a detail from Klimt’s The Kiss.

Experience and Memory

https://i0.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/d/d6/Gates-Buckles.jpg/500px-Gates-Buckles.jpg

The last Canadian World War I veteran, John Babcock, is dead. He passed away at age 109 in Spokane, Washington on February 18, 2009. Frank Buckles, also 109, remains the sole surviving American veteran of the “War to End All Wars,” according to The New York Times.

With Mr. Buckles inevitable departure, we will all lose contact with what happened in Europe between 1914 and 1918 within what is called “living memory;” the contact that can only come from the direct experience of the world-changing event that shaped the lives of many of our grandparents or great grandparents. Our only available sources of information will then be in the form of books, stories that the survivors told to those still alive, old silent movie film of some of the battle action, recorded reminiscences, journals a few of the combatants kept, accounts from war correspondents, and the like.

All of which leads me to think about memory and experience. And why understanding them is important.

Experience takes a number of forms and, when the experience is past, it becomes a memory. Simple enough on the surface, but not simple at all.

First, there is the “living” of the thing, actually participating in an event. In the case of Frank Buckles, that meant driving an American Army ambulance in France during the conflict itself, witnessing the carnage, hearing wounded men cry for their mothers, making and losing friends, feeling the “pee-in-your-pants” terror of it, getting shot at, carrying a gas mask or perhaps being exposed to poison gas, ministering to the wounded, jumping into fox holes—eating, drinking, and sleeping it all. But once Mr. Buckles returned home from the front, his time there had become a memory and was now different from the actual, in-the-moment intensity of the lived-experience, an intensity that nothing in his long life after the war could match.

At another level, more removed, there are the spectators to events. We all achieve the status of “watchers” when we attend a sporting competition. We see and hear a good deal of what is happening, even if we don’t ourselves play in the game.

At even more distance from the event are those who watch at home. They will miss some of the “atmosphere” of “being there” unlike those of us independent of TV cameras, who will see the event naturally, in the way it unfolds in real-life (without the mediation of a cameraman or the interruption of commercials). And the “at-home” audience will not experience the same roar of the crowd, the heat of sun on skin, the faces of the beer vendors, and the thousands of movements and sounds of the athletes and spectators that the cameras and microphones do not record.

More distant still from the actual experience is a radio broadcast, where one’s imagination and memory of events like the one being reported tend to fill in the blanks where no visual representation of the event is present. At a further remove might be a newspaper account of the game or a friend’s description of what happened from his memory of being there himself.

Experience is one thing, memory another. Memory can only approximate the event itself and can alter or fade with the passage of time. Remember your first kiss—all the thousands of sensations happening all at once—the rush of being alive, the smell of perfume or aftershave or the person’s natural scent, the touch and texture of skin, the moistness and softness of lips, your own heartbeat, body against body—firmness, roundness—the moment before and after, the placement of your hands, the color of your partner’s eyes and their expression in those same moments? Now, as you think about it, however good your memory, I think you will admit that remembering is not the same as living it.

At least in the case of memories of things like your first kiss, you have an advantage over others’ understanding of that experience because it was yours and not theirs. It becomes a good deal harder to relate to the experience of others, especially if they have lived through something wholly unlike what has happened in your own life. The most dramatic examples I can think of come from those who have experienced severe trauma. Take the testimony of a Holocaust survivor, Magda F., from the Fortunoff Video Archive of Holocaust Testimonies quoted by Lawrence Langer in Holocaust Testimonies: the Ruins of Memory, as relatives implored her to talk about her experience:

And I looked at them and I said: “I’m gonna tell you something. I’m gonna tell you something now. If somebody would tell me this story, I would say ‘She’s lying, or he’s lying.’ Because this can’t be true. And maybe you’re gonna feel the same way. That your sister’s lying here, because this could not happen. Because to understand us, somebody has to go through with it. Because nobody, but nobody fully understands us. You can’t. No (matter) how much sympathy you give me when I’m talking here, or you understand…you’re trying to understand me, I know, but I don’t think you could, I don’t think so.”

And I said this to them. Hoping (they) should never be able to understand, because to understand, you have to go through with it, and I hope nobody in the world comes to this again, (so) they should understand us. And this was the honest truth, because nobody, nobody, nobody…

Those of us who are the children of Americans who survived the Great Depression got a little bit of this kind of understanding, I think, in late 2008, when the economy fell off a cliff and looked like it was going to continue falling and possibly repeat the Great Depression. We’d heard the stories our parents or grandparents told, we’d read the history books describing the period between the Stock Market crash of 1929 and the beginning of World War II, but we hadn’t lived in a period anything like that. Now, we were getting a taste of it, even if, for most of us, it was only a taste and not the whole meal. Now we know more, and better, what it was like for our elders (and what it is like for our fellow Americans who are losing their homes along with their livelihoods right now).

Sergiu Celibidache, the Roumanian symphony conductor, put very well the difference between direct experience and some form of pale attempt to duplicate that experience in a different time and place. Celibidache believed that it was impossible to accurately render the transcendant impact of musical performance except in a concert hall. He thought that recordings were a fraud, because they attenuated this experience and altered it, didn’t duplicate the physical and aural sensations present sitting in the hall, listening to the full dynamic range of sound as that sound was being made in the same acoustical environment as the musicians themselves. Therefore, Celibidache refused to make recordings for most of his career. And, in the days before anyone ever considered the possibility of experiments in virtual reality, he said that “listening to a recording is like making love to a picture of Bridget Bardot,” the gorgeous French model and actress of the 1950s and 1960s.

Adlai Stevenson II, as I’ve quoted elsewhere, captured the impossibility of fully communicating an experience he’d had to those who had not yet had that experience in a 1954 speech (made when he was 54) to the senior class of his alma mater, Princeton University:

“…What a man knows at fifty that he did not know at twenty is, for the most part, incommunicable. The laws, the aphorisms, the generalizations, the universal truths, the parables and the old saws—all of the observations about life which can be communicated handily in ready, verbal packages—are as well known to a man at twenty who has been attentive as to a man at fifty. He has been told them all, he has read them all, and he has probably repeated them all before he graduates from college; but he has not lived them all.

What he knows at fifty that he did not know at twenty boils down to something like this: The knowledge he has acquired with age is not the knowledge of formulas, or forms of words, but of people, places, actions—a knowledge not gained by words but by touch, sight, sound, victories, failures, sleeplessness, devotion, love—the human experiences and emotions of this earth and of oneself and other men…”

So, put another way, for example, no one who hasn’t been in love can know what love is; no one who hasn’t experienced discrimination or fought against it can really understand it fully; no one who has only watched a travelogue about the countryside really knows what it is like to be in the country; just as those who observe from the sidelines and never have played the game cannot completely grasp the clichéd expression about “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”

No, life is about the living of it, not the reading about it or the watching  of it. And, so too, it is about knowing that you don’t know fully about the experiences you haven’t had. It is about knowing that you can only approximate a real and complete appreciation of another’s life; knowing that some of those things the other has witnessed or lived through are frankly unknowable without their experience; knowing that the depths of human personality, emotion, and incident are infinitely great and that one can only approach the deepest point in knowledge and understanding even as we reflect on our own live’s through the lens of memory; and knowing that the death of the last veteran of World War I robs us all of some element of connection to history and, therefore, to the forces that shaped us, our parents, and their parents.

Life is infinitely humbling, fascinating, terrifying, and touching. I imagine one could live a dozen lives, some in one gender, some another; some straight, some gay; some black, some white, some yellow; some married, some single; some in this time, some in the future and the past; some here, some there; and still not achieve the richness that is possible.

But, of course, we only get one, so far as anyone knows. That means we must get on with things.

The day is short and there is much to do.

The photo above is of Frank Buckles with Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates on March 6, 2008 by Cherie A. Thurlby of soldiersmediacenter, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

High School Reunions

So you have a high school reunion coming up. And, perhaps you are a bit uncomfortable with the idea of attending. I’ve heard quite a few reasons that cause people to hesitate to go to just such events:

  1. No one will remember me.
  2. Everyone will remember me.
  3. I’ve gotten ________(fill in the blank here with such things as: fat, bald, wrinkled, or the physical defect of your choice).
  4. I haven’t accomplished anything or I haven’t accomplished enough.
  5. I’m divorced.
  6. I’m_________(another blank to fill with such things as: living with my parents, an ex-convict, dreadfully boring, etc).
  7. I never liked those people when I was 17, so why would I like them now?

I imagine there are other reasons, but you get the idea.

Let’s see if I can counter some of these excuses:

  1. Lots of people believe that they won’t be remembered. It is unlikely that no one will know your name. But even if you are recalled by few others, a reunion is actually an opportunity to get to know some of the people who you didn’t know well in high school.
  2. Apparently, you believe that you were well known as a social outcast or as an obnoxious teenager. But perhaps you will be surprised to discover that people are pretty forgiving after 10 or 20 years. If you are no longer on the outside looking in, you have nothing to worry about — people will take you as you now are. And, if you were a bad guy, maybe you need to apologize to a few people. They will almost certainly be gracious.
  3. Do you really think you are the only person who changed physically since your graduation? Unless your classmates live in a jar of formaldehyde, its likely that they haven’t escaped the aging process. It’s true that people age differently, and a lucky few are pretty well-preserved (or have been cosmetically altered to give that appearance), but only one or two have made pacts with the devil to remain ageless.
  4. In the midst of the “Great Recession” more than a few people are out of work or under-employed. You will hardly be alone in this either. Indeed, the reunion might be an opportunity to network.
  5. You are divorced? Look at the reunion as a chance to encounter a new love. Many of the divorced people in attendance are looking for just that opportunity. You might be the person they seek.
  6. OK, living with your parents is not something to brag about. Unless, of course, you are taking care of an aging parent, in which case it tells your old friends that you have a heart. And, if you have a criminal record and are reformed, good for you. Unless you made the front page of the Chicago Tribune, its unlikely that anyone will know this. As far as being boring, you have some time to think about what you might say to the people you meet at the reunion. Work on it. Think of some good questions to ask them. And remember what notable or amusing events you’ve lived through since the last time you saw your old friends.
  7. So you didn’t like your classmates. You didn’t get along with the snobs, the jocks, the brains, the preppies, the druggies, the burn-outs or all the above and more. The good news is that some of these people have changed and are now much more approachable. More good news: some of the people who seemed stuck-up were actually just as shy as you were, and you mistook their distancing for disdain.

A few more observations about high school reunions. The closer in time to your graduation, the more people will resemble their high school avatars. The first reunions, certainly including the 10th and 20th, do involve a certain amount of social comparison among people.

But, by the time you reach reunion 40, almost anyone who comes is just glad to see you and likely to be unconcerned with anything to do with your social status, bank account, or beauty. The feeling of good-will is pretty palpable by the time you are reunited in middle-age: you know that not everyone from your class is still alive, and you are likely to appreciate old friends more than ever.

There is something about being with people who lived in the same place as you did, had the same teachers, in the same moment in history, at precisely the same age as you were when you achieved many of the “firsts” of your life: first kiss, first love, learning to drive, taking your college board (SAT/ACT) exams, and so forth.

You (and your old classmates) had all the same anxieties, worries, hesitations, and learning experiences as you tried to figure out who you were and what was the best direction for your life. It’s likely that you’ve made good friends later in life, but these high school friends were the people you walked with in the formative moments of that life, the people who knew your still relatively young parents and your siblings, and the almost brand-new version of you. Nothing can replace that shared background and knowledge.

So, if your not certain about attending your reunion, I hope you will think about what I’ve written. You might be pleasantly surprised by the experience.