Going Back to Egypt

Exodus 14: 10-14

July 15, 2001

James A. Christopher, DMin



A new book The Seven Sins of Memory is written by Daniel Schacter who chairs Harvard University's department of Psychology. He describes how the mind forgets and remembers. Its fascinating to consider that memory loss is far more complex than absentmindedness. For instance, one of the seven sins is called misattribution. A simple way to define this term is to say that sometimes people do not remember things as they were. There's a curious little reason that this may happen. Psychologists talk about something called memory binding, that is, gluing together the various components of an experience into a unitary whole. When some individual parts of an experience are retained, but memory binding fails, the stage is set for distortions that often occur when we try to recall something from the past. (pg. 94)


For instance, we used to go to grandmother's house for Fourth of July picnics. Most of us remember pieces of the picnic, the homemade ice cream, the game of hide and seek, the smell of grandmother's perfume. So that throughout the rest of our life we recall Fourth of July picnics at grandmother's house with a kind of rosy glow. Other elements of the day at grandmother's were not bound to the event in our memory, that is, we didn't glue them into a comprehensive picture, so we don't remember the time when we hit the dog with a chunk of potato salad and he bit us. We don't remember the wasps' nest we stirred up. We don't remember getting into a fight with our cousin. Or, we remember only those things, and go through the rest of our life omitting the pleasant parts. If you want to know how to put the glue back into your memory I recommend you purchase the book, or borrow one from the library. Or you might consider the experiences of the Hebrews as they were fleeing from Egypt and look at how they came to grips with some aspects of the sin of misattribution.


When faced with great difficulty, when the armies of Pharaoh were approaching them, their response was, "Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?" Then they remembered saying before they left, "Let us alone, and let us serve the Egyptians," or, "it would have been better for us to have served the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness." (Exodus 14:11,12) Their memory of life in Egypt was incomplete. They left out the fact that they were slaves, there were beatings, there was not always sufficient food, it was such a brutal existence that they were willing to embark on the Exodus, and look for a better way in a better place. Incomplete memory can create great difficulties. It sometimes looks like resistance to the truth, but the fact is that it is a trick of the mind, it is as Dr. Schacter says, "A sin of memory." And it can lead to harmful decisions.


Think of the spouse, usually female, who has been abused, savagely, and who finally seeks refuge in one of the many shelters that have grown up around our country. She and her children arrive, are given medical attention, are offered support, and are told how they might begin to put their lives together again. After a short time, inexplicably, this woman returns to the abusive partner. By some cruel twist of fate, her memory did not bind the brutal facts of her previous existence, and she was able to recall only the contrite, pleasant person who loves her and wants her to return.


We see the same thing happening in the world of sports. The number two golfer in the world is often thought of in terms of what he fails to do on Sunday, the fourth day of a tournament. While it is a very incomplete picture, Phil Mickelson is frequently seen that way and may in fact feel that way about himself. A fluke may grow into a pattern and become ingrained like granite in the collective memory of people around the particular person.


It happens to churches that way, too. I pastored a church once which in the early days of its history had been featured in a national weekly magazine and had been described in a prominent college textbook. All of the good press created a kind of Camelot glow around those particular years. When life changed, when new people moved into that community, when original members of the church moved out, when the economy began to fluctuate and go through various aberrations, the memory of the church was about how good it had been in the old days. That memory, of course, did not bind all of the elements of the old days into a unit, so recollections were incomplete. They left out the church fights over the design of the pews, they left out the fact that the founding minister retained all of the records of baptisms, marriages and funerals in his head, and took them with him to the grave. They left out that they never really had enough money to do what they needed to do. And so it went. The greatest problem that ensued from such incomplete memory is that many people wanted to recreate those days, but without embracing the trials and the difficulties of those days.


It happens with mental health. I suppose I'll never forget the pleasant young woman I met in the wards of a mental hospital who was badly damaged by the bruises of growing up. She said, "I always wanted to be five years old." Her memory of those years was like those of the fictional character Pollyanna. Her great struggle was to get help incorporating difficulty into the memory, and to bind more of the elements of the real past to the actual events.


How do we cope with and possibly overcome or at least neutralize some of the sin of misattribution, that is, incomplete remembering of past events? One way is to simply recognize how unworkable it is to live life as if what was can still be. The focus becomes such that we can't see where we're going. Its like the comment of Jesus who said, "No man who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is the right kind of man for the kingdom of God." (Luke 9:62) It's like trying to cut lawn with a push lawnmower by looking at where we've been. We know what happens to the lines in the grass. Its like trying to drive a car forward by looking in the rearview mirror. We may see where we've been, but we might also crash. It is not our intent to wipe out the past. We simply do not allow the past to become a distorted anchor.


There's the story of a minister who took his grandchild who was five or six years old to a resort by the seaside in England. There they met an old, retired, and wretchedly bitter colleague minister who had been sitting out in the sun too long and had a bit of sun stroke. As he lamented his situation and complained about how much the world had changed, the minister with his grandson listened patiently, and after hearing the comment about the sunstroke, they left. The little boy held his grandfather's hand and said, "Grandfather, I hope you never catch sunset." The point, is that sunset is supposed to be beautiful, not a cause for complaint.


So we have to literally train ourselves to look forward, with information from the past but open to the new, and make sure that the past serves a useful purpose.


The other way of handling the sin of misattribution is to live with a measure of faith. Moses spoke to the people, "Do not be afraid, stand firm and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today." (Exodus 14:13) To live with faith means that we have an outlook on life that is larger than tricks that the mind may play. We can never remember accurately and completely, but we can believe that God always has more in store for us. When we face difficulty and challenge, it is the time to open the expanse of our spirit and embrace a large faith. That way we can overcome the tendency to look nostalgically at what we thought we used to have, but which in fact was just part of the picture. The whole picture is contained in God's great future.


This week the General Synod of the UCC is meeting and it calls to mind when I was a delegate for the first time in 1967. One of my assignments was to work with a small group from the department of evangelism. We all had little buttons to wear and pass out and to talk about. The word on the button was "aiglatson". When people asked us what it meant we said, "Its nostalgia spelled backwards." When we look back at our forbears in the faith, Moses, Joshua, Andrew, Paul, and all of those who came after them, we see this great cloud of witnesses looking forward. That is the way we overcome the tendency and the temptation to go back to Egypt. We look forward in faith.

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