Time, Memory, and Meaning

(August 12, 2007)


Can anything have meaning unless it somehow lasts forever? How can something that only lasts a moment have any lasting significance?

Certainly, one of the great paradoxes of existence is that what is most permanent (for example, rocks) in themselves hold little or no meaning for us, while that which is most fleeting, be it a thought, a word, or even a glance, can be most meaningful of all. So we try to defeat this paradox by writing books, recording voices on tapes or plastic disks, or capturing images on film. Or, when all else fails, names and dates are chiseled on those rocks or stones. And yet we know that sooner or later even these records will be erased by time. What then?

All this suggests that memory is the only guarantor of meaning. Lose one's memories and one has, at least for all practical purposes, lost all meaning. A culture or civilization that has lost its collective memory is like a reservoir that has gone dry. So might it not be said that for the person who has lost all memories of the past life becomes meaningless, a round of activity devoid of any apparent continuity, coming from nowhere, promising nothing?

Yet, like any other kind of thoughts, memories are hardly more than sequences of impressions stored, apparently randomly, among the synapses of the brain. And as such, they can be rearranged, reconfigured, even recreated to recall what may have never happened perhaps even previous lifetimes that were never lived! Indeed, someone once asked the Dalai Lama if he remembered his previous lives, and his answer was that when he was young he thought he did, but now, in later years, he tends to doubt it.

Nevertheless, or at least it seems to me, memory may be the key to immortality, indeed the secret behind existence itself. St. Augustine, in his famous treatise on God as a trinity, said as much when he compared the relationship between Father, Son, and Spirit to the faculties of the mind. The Son or "Word" (Logos) of course exemplifies, even embodies, the reason or rationality of God manifest in the created world. The Spirit is, as it were, the manifestation of the divine will, the vehicle of God's love. Yet, when it comes describing the Father, Augustine turns to God's memory as the source or ground of all other existing things, indeed, as "Being in itself."

If this is so, then perhaps the only chance any of us have of becoming immortal, or of our lives having any lasting meaning, comes from the fact that whatever else in this world is eventually forgotten, we shall, live on in the ever-living memory that lies at the heart of that act of eternal, infinite being which is God.