Like the day of an equinox, memory is half light, and half dark.

I began thinking about memory, and the many ways in which memories shape us, during the commemoration of September 11, 2001.  Many memories were shared that held up loss, violence, and confusion. Other memories illuminated the sense of being spared, and the sweetness of life, of still having loved ones.  One of my own strongest memories of that morning is of my denial:  Going about my business in San Francisco, with Judith at home in NYC, it took about 6 hours for me to stop my programmed movements, and let the realities of what was happening get to me.  What we remember of that day, and of other days, shapes us.

Memories are not just spontaneous events, though they sometimes come to us unbidden.  Memories are also things that all of us use in building an understanding of who we are.

Memory, and specific cultural, ethnic or national memories, are used, as well, as social tools:  Specific memories can be used to incite anger or resistance; to move groups to solidarity and action; to invigorate faith or communal participation; to prompt reflection or invite change.  Which memories are repeated by leaders, and put forward by media, affect how we feel and what we may do in any situation.

In most of our religious communities, there are also practices that call us to remember who we are, or what has been given us.  These usually help us to re-member ourselves as well, that is, to understand again how we are part of one another, of this community, and related to God, or Ultimate Reality.

Unfortunately, we can and do use memories, even religious memories, to reinforce divisions, and to perpetuate the sense of being victims, or outsiders.  We also use them to recall experiences in which divisions have been overcome, and times of being welcome or safe.

Memories of trauma, and of being spared in the midst of violence and chaos, are especially strong; they make a deep, and lasting, mark on us.  Memories of trauma can be so powerful that those carrying them often try various ways to forget, or bury them.  It is common, too, for those who have endured trauma to get stuck in the memories – they “play” them over and over, and continually re-member themselves back into the trauma, until their suffering becomes a controlling (sometimes unacknowledged) part of who they are.

To build relationships, or to overcome conflict, we have to welcome and understand both the darkness and the light that the memories of those involved (and our own memories!) bring and carry.  Dwelling too much in the light, or in the dark, will leave us stuck.

A (true) story from the Summer of 1998 0r ’99:  At lunch time one day, an American Muslim Imam was listening to a Palestinian Muslim Imam say that he would be sure to tell his children everything that had happened to him, and the violence he and his family had endured in the Occupied Territories.  He wanted them to know who had done this to them!  The American Muslim, an African American who had grown up in segregation, insisted that he should not do that.  He could not do that if he wanted to give his children a less hate-filled basis for living.  Islam was about turning from such hatred, not passing it on!  Their conversation was urgent, and deeply engaged.

In the years that followed, that Palestinian Muslim turned away from the hate that his memories of violence had fueled in him.  He took part in dialogue with American Jews and Christians, and preached coexistence and peace.  Then the U.S. government, urged on by certain persons who kept repeating the reports of what this man had done in the more distant past, took away his green card, and deported him.

Memory can be used for darkness, and it can be used for light.