As he remembers God’s parting of the Red Sea, Asaph’s lamentation turns to praise: “Your way, O God, is holy. What god is great like our God? You are the God who works wonders; you have made known your might among the peoples. You with your arm redeemed your people, the children of Jacob and Joseph” (Psalm 77:13–15). Our memories of God’s deeds, then, offer hope, a welcome raft in turbulent seas.
Memory binds us to places that forget us, and to moments that no one else values.
Such thoughts recently haunted me when I perused my alma mater’s magazine. A glimpse of the familiar cherry blossoms along the Hudson River unleashed memories that washed over me like surf. Again I could see the shadows from streetlamps cutting across the footpaths in Riverside Park. I could feel hopes for the future swell in my chest, as they had when I would marvel about the hundreds of people whose steps had preceded my own on those same footpaths, their stories alighting on the pavement before vanishing into tomorrow.
I now count my own story among the forgotten. The park remains, and those trees still bloom. That river still slides in rippling steel past the stacked concrete of the city horizon. But my footfalls no longer echo there. I can describe each blossom and avenue unaided, but if I return, I’ll be another tourist mom with kids fidgeting at her wrists, her memories, heady and vibrant, invisible to those who pass.
The city that shaped me churns on, indifferent to my existence.
When Memories Ebb and Flow
When we look to the past for our identity, such reminiscences can arouse a troubling sense of displacement. Memories leave stark imprints, but rarely can we preserve the vibrancy of their initial impact. The buildings we remember crumble. Mentors we esteem stoop with age. The burdens of life humble us all, even while we long to revisit cherished moments, and to reclaim abandoned dreams. F. Scott Fitzgerald phrased it poignantly in The Great Gatsby: “And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
Like Jay Gatsby, how often do we chase after lost joys that evade us? How often do we mine our memories for permanence and meaning, only to find our past as ephemeral as we are? Just as our bodies wither and break, the places, people, and things we prize also slip away.
Clinging to the past leaves us hollow when we forget the one who infuses our moments with meaning. Memory was meant not only for private wanderings into forgotten shadows, but also to remind us who God is, and what he’s done for us. When we journey into those memories, we cultivate an understanding of our identity that far outshines wistful nostalgia.