Our memories are shaped by the nature of our present hopes and fears for the future as much as by events in our past. They are not like prehistoric animals preserved intact through the passage of years; they are better compared to fragments of bone, skin, and fur whose true nature, use, or meaning can only be guessed at. Another scrap is found, and all must be rethought or reconfigured. A betrayal comes to light, and yesterday’s stories darken.
So it is with the mixing of illness and memory.
The scenes from years gone by that once appeared to my mind’s eye in a certain hue change color when mixed with the gray tint of melancholy, the red stain of anger, the blue of hope, or the purple and black of mourning. Some of us living with illness look back with regret at opportunities missed or absent pleasures. We feel waylaid by our illness when we are forced to turn back upon a road once taken with another destination in mind.
Some of us regard the past as a paradise remembered and use reminiscences of people we loved and adventures enjoyed as a consolation for our sufferings. There are also times when we recall occasions when we met and overcame challenges and trials, and we can use such images to maintain morale and fashion a vision of faith for the hard days to come.
Attempting to understand how we and our families hold the past can be helpful. One of the great values of religious, cultural, or longtime family myths and stories is that we need not prove their veracity or to have “been there” to identify with their narratives, morals, characters, and heroes.
There is, of course, a great danger when we are overwhelmed by the force of collective memories, as can occur under the spell of nationalism, fascism, or racism. In proper perspective, however, we can draw on the power of stories and symbols to hold up ideals, whether of overcoming affliction, accepting fate, or bearing faithful witness to suffering and pain.