Here’s a scenario, which may be incredibly lame to some people—but will probably resonate with everyone else.
On the night of my twenty-first birthday, my heart was very full. I had spent the day with all the people I cherished most, eating the food I loved the most. I had the best group of college friends that anyone could ever hope to ask for. I was spending my summer with two of my longest-running friends (engaged to each other), studying the things I loved all day in their company and playing all night as their welcome third wheel. My education, including my thesis on Tolkien and Paradise Lost, was going swimmingly, and grad school was looking feasible. Life was bright.
I went to bed and wept.
Not because I was secretly depressed. Not because of any problem. It was because of the thought that struck me unbidden: that this golden evening, this full of these particular blessings, would never return.
ENTER C. S. LEWIS
I have struggled with melancholy at joyful moments throughout my life. All it takes is the thought, “This is fleeting.” In this way, the very best memories can become points of weakness, drains on my soul. The highest joys warp into deep, wracking aches under this influence.
The first author, for me, who seemed to acknowledge this tendency in his writings was C. S. Lewis.
Lewis felt memory very deeply, as you can see in his love for old books, Surprised by Joy, and A Grief Observed. And he argued throughout his works that good memories could be used badly—or virtuously.
In Screwtape Letters, he notes, “Like most of the other things which humans are excited about, such as health and sickness, age and youth, or war and peace, [love] is, from the point of view of the spiritual life, mainly raw material” (Screwtape 103). In other words, almost every aspect of life—we could add social media, Disney Princess movies, or going gluten-free to his list—is neutral, neither inherently virtuous nor inherently bad.
Memory is a surprising area of application for this comment. I don’t usually think of memory as a moral issue at all: it just is. But if good memories are stealing my joy, maybe it’s because I’m using them wrong.
BAD GOOD MEMORIES
From Letters to Malcolm:
“It seems to me that we often, almost sulkily, reject the good that God offers us because, at that moment, we expected some other good. . . . On every level of our life—in our religious experience, in our gastronomic, erotic, aesthetic, and social experience—we are always harking back to some occasion which seemed to us to reach perfection, setting that up as a norm, and depreciating all other occasions by comparison. . . . God shows us a new facet of the glory, and we refuse to look at it because we’re still looking for the old one.” (26)
By clinging to the “Good Old Days” as a standard to be sought, we refuse to see the good in front of us. The Good Old Days aren’t bad. It’s okay to have nostalgia for a time period, like your college years. I think it’s okay even to have an ache for those days. But to dwell on them endlessly, always seeking their return, leads us wrong.
Lewis applies this idea of nostalgia limiting future pleasure to an area all Christians have struggled with: “devotional life. Many religious people lament that the first fervours of their conversion have died away. They think—sometimes rightly, but not, I believe, always—that their sins account for this. . . . But were those fervours—the operative word is those—ever intended to last?” (Malcolm, 26-27).
Lewis makes a similar argument about marriage’s honeymoon phase in Mere Christianity. Both passages suggest that “fervor” is not gone for good with the passing of the golden moment. It’s just those fervors that will pass: more are to come, if we let the others go. We can’t hold on to both. We can miss the joys of maturing faith or love by wistfully glancing backward.
So, how do good memories weaken us? When we want them to last, to play on repeat.
But you know what happens to the songs we play on repeat. We get sick of them. That’s right. I’m looking at you, “Let It Go.”
In all seriousness, though, we destroy our enjoyment of good things when we are allowed to repeat them as often as we like. Songs, favorite restaurants, checking Facebook—they become stale, giving less enjoyment. Why, then, this irrational sadness at not being able to repeat experiences as often as we like? Do we want those delicious memories to become stale, too?
LET IT GO (OR, HOLD IT A DIFFERENT WAY)
From Malcolm again: “And the joke, or tragedy, of it all is that these golden moments in the past, which are so tormenting if we erect them into a norm, are entirely nourishing, wholesome, and enchanting if we are content to accept them for what they are, for memories” (27).
The right use of memory is…drumroll…as a memory. Lewis tackles this idea in the sci-fi novel Out of the Silent Planet, a Gulliver’s Travels-like tale about earthman Ransom on a world that sin has touched but been eradicated from. At one point Ransom discovers that the hrossa, the otter-like aliens he’s fallen in with, only mate once in their lives. He is dismayed for them: to be unable to repeat the sexual experience seems cruel.
His friend Hyoi responds, “A pleasure is full grown only when it is remembered. You are speaking . . . as if the pleasure were one thing and the memory another. It is all one thing. . . . What you call remembering is the last part of the pleasure” (Silent Planet, 73).
So pleasure isn’t just fleeting moments; it comes in parts. It has a beginning, middle, and end. Too often I think of time as the gate shutting me off from the past pleasure, but Hyoi suggests that pleasure is only complete (“full grown”) when remembered.
“A poem is a good example,” says Hyoi. “For the most splendid line becomes fully splendid only by means of all the lines after it; if you went back to it you would find it less splendid than you thought. You would kill it” (73).
A memory rightly left a memory, and treasured as such, creates wisdom. You can look back at it, you can love it for the person it has made and is making you, but you cannot demand to repeat it.
Hearkening back to Lewis’s idea of the “first fervours” of a devotional life, think of the frustration and disappointment that devoted believers cause themselves by longing to repeat them, but think of the joy and gratitude available if they keep the fervors a memory, thanking God for the firstfruits of His work in their lives.
Hyoi says that a right-minded person “remembers [the experience], and boils it inside him and makes it into poems and wisdom.” It is “growing something” in you (Silent Planet, 73). Lewis reiterates the analogy in Letters to Malcolm: “Properly bedded down in a past which we do not miserably try to conjure back, they will send up exquisite growths. Leave the bulbs alone, and the new flowers will come up. Grub them up and hope, by fondling and sniffing, to get last year’s blooms, and you will get nothing.”
Lewis, C. S. Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer. Mariner Books, 2012.
—. Out of the Silent Planet. Scribner Paperback, 1996.
—. The Screwtape Letters. HarperSanFrancisco, 2001.