On remembering and forgetting

You have an argument with a friend. You have come to blows (usually metaphorical). You bring a halt to your slide into irreparable disagreement and accompanying anger and find an accommodation and one of you says, 'Let us forget it' and the other agrees; and, miraculously you do. Such forgetting is only possible if it is shared.

Sometimes you do actually forget. Later you find yourself reminiscing about that bust up you had and laugh about your mutual inability to remember what it was, in fact, about. Mostly you remember the details but they are transcended in a wider reality that binds you; and, after all, hate is much closer to the possibility of love than indifference.

You may come to your accommodation by discovering a shared narrative that encompasses both your points of view, more likely you have recognised an identity of shared values that transcends narratives, allows you to live with the recognition that your stories and memories will always jostle with and against one another and it is the continuing differences that keeps life more than interesting.

In Miroslav Volf's profound book, 'Exclusion and Embrace: Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness and Reconciliation' there is a moment I recall (and it is many years since I read it) that he discusses a moment in the Hebrew Bible when God decides to forget the sins of his people (which is probably progress in the (our) consciousness of God from the moment he wipes the slate clean by wiping out all but the most faithful remnant of humanity by flood)! What a wonderful moment that is when the identity fashioned by conflicted memory is subsumed into yet something other - a liberation into a deeper, shared identity by that which gifts us our identity in the first place.

Volf's book, for all its academic apparatus, is so moving because it was written out of his experience as a Croatian of his homeland (Yugoslavia) fracturing under the pressure of events and being reshaped under the murderous tyrannies of conflicting identities and competing memories.

I was thinking about this both in relation to the flood of commemoration triggered by the one hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War and the on-going conflicts in...name your most urgent, closest, most felt location.

From the First World War, we are urged to learn the lessons through remembering in spite of the rather obvious fact that we appear to have learnt very little from this past except the resilience with which we remember and cling to our narratives of past injustice suffered and our difference from the (multiple) others in our justifications for violence. 'We' went to war (in 1914) as the United Kingdom to defend the 'British way of life' which was apparently radically different from the 'German way of life' and so on and so forth...

Perhaps rather than the aching work of trying to find a set of memories that might collectively set us free - can anyone imagine that Israelis and Palestinians are ever going to come to a collectively agreed account of the origins of their conflict - we need a greater willingness to forget as a prelude to forgiveness and new life? This in turn requires a much greater fixation not on the past but on present need and the presence necessary for people to be able to articulate that need.

As one of the architects of modern work in reconciliation, Marshall Rosenburg, recognised the starting point for any resolution of conflict is in the articulation of one's needs, right now, and their being heard. The closer one can move together into the present, the more likely one is to find the place where the future can be found and the past surrendered. Into that space, presence steps, a Presence that is big enough to hold all our conflicted memories and see through and beyond them and help us do likewise.

Both of my grandfathers served in the First World War and both were scarred by it - withdrawing in later life into protective spheres. One of them, for example, retreating to his allotments and the mass production of the root vegetables that my father detested for the rest of his life!

I found myself wondering where they would place the emphasis on the need to remember or on the liberation of a forgetting shared?

This is not to say there are not historical moments where the burden of failure does not transparently rest on the side of a clear perpetrator and the act of truthful remembrance (and repentance) is the necessary first act in any possible reconciliation - the Holocaust and Apartheid South Africa come to mind - but we need to recognise how much suffering is prolonged by imagining that every conflict has this asymmetry as its underlying pattern when, in truth, most of the time, we inhabit a much messier world where we need to be continually liberated from our histories into our present needs rather than trying to untangle them, usually to 'our' benefit.


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