The Value of Remembering and Forgetting

We hear men talking of the good old times. I grant you they were old, but were they good?

Someone has said that today has two great enemies. The one is tomorrow and the other is yesterday. And memory plays such madcap pranks sometimes that we are almost half-inclined to think that true. Do you remember Israel in the desert, and how they spoke to Moses about Egypt? ‘Is it a small thing’, cried the rebellious children, ‘that thou hast brought us up out of a land that floweth with milk and honey?’ Were there no brickfields there? They had forgotten that.

 

Thou shalt remember all the way which the Lord thy God led thee.
— Deuteronomy 8:2

Forgetting those things which are behind.
— Philippians 3:13

There seems a contradiction in these texts. They seem to be quite opposed to one another. You would almost think that the apostle Paul had broken with Moses so completely that he cast to the winds here the prophet’s counsel. But Paul was Paul, and not a revolutionary. He was too big a man to scorn the past. He loved to say wise things that a wise God had taught him; but to say smart things, he was above all that.

I take it, then, for all apparent contrasts, that Moses and Paul are in true harmony. They are forging out a doctrine of the past, and it takes prophet and apostle to do that. The one turns round, and looking down the past, he cries Remember! The other turns his head and cries Forget! There are some things, then, that I must remember, and there are other things I must forget. In other words, I can so train my memory, by choice, by meditation, and by prayer; I can so drive it into the service of my soul; I can give it such a spiritual education, that it will open its hand and cast to the winds of heaven whatever would check me in my struggle heavenwards; but grip like a vice and wave like a banner over me whatever will help me to my distant goal. There is not a faculty but may be sanctified, and there are few faculties so rich as memory.

Someone has said that today has two great enemies. The one is tomorrow and the other is yesterday. And memory plays such madcap pranks sometimes that we are almost half-inclined to think that true. Do you remember Israel in the desert, and how they spoke to Moses about Egypt? ‘Is it a small thing’, cried the rebellious children, ‘that thou hast brought us up out of a land that floweth with milk and honey?’ Were there no brickfields there? They had forgotten that. Was there no swirl of the taskmaster’s lash? The sound of it had passed long years ago. Faced by the desert and the desert-hunger, that wizard memory brought back the milk and honey. They would have been better men and stronger travellers, more worthy of their leader and their God, if they had forgotten the things that were behind.

And the wizard memory still plays these tricks. It smoothens out the wrinkles of the past. It was a furnace of iron when we dwelt in it. It is almost a land of milk and honey now. We hear men talking of the good old times. I grant you they were old, but were they good? I sometimes think that had we a twelvemonth of them, we should all long for the bad new times again. It is distance lends enchantment to the view. It is across the valley that the song is sweet. And when we are tempted to sit down and dream, and mourn for a happier past and wish it back, it is thethat Paul and all the saints of God cry Forward! and forget the things that are behind. If happiness has gone, then let it go! If innocence has fled, so be it. But still there is duty, and that is more than happiness. And still there is character, and that is more than innocence. And the best is still before me in the battle, if I am only true to self and God.

In that sense, then, it may be true that the great enemy of my today is yesterday. But there is a deeper and a more Christlike sense in which yesterday and today are bosom friends. They are both working in a common purpose; they are both given by the same Hand Divine; they are both carved out of the same eternity. Now you can tell a man by his friends, the saying is. And this is certain, we must know the past if we would ever understand today.

We meet a stranger, for instance, in the house of a friend, and there is a look of suffering about her face and a certain mute agony within her eyes; and we know at once, though never a word has passed, that we are face to face with tragedy. And the face haunts us, it is so sweet, so sad; it haunts us, and we want to know its story; and then comes some hour when the lips are unlocked under the touch of sympathy, and we hear the record of that bitter past, and we see the hour when sun and moon were darkened — and we understand the sorrow of today because we know the tragedy of yesterday.

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