Remembering and being remembered

Mark Stephens on memory, being remembered, and our sense of self.

Last week the Guardian reported on the story of Joseph Flavill, a British teenager who is slowly emerging from a 10 month coma after being struck by a car. While the tragedy of traumatic brain injury is, unfortunately, by no means unique, it is the timing of his coma that makes Flavill’s case so intriguing. The 19 year old was hit at the start of March, just prior to the COVID pandemic bursting forth with full ferocity on the UK. As Flavill slowly reenters conscious experience of the world, his family is carefully mulling how to narrate a tumultuous period of which he has no memory.

This provoked me to think of the way memory contributes to our sense of self. In some sense, who we think we are is bound up with stories we remember. At the same time, our memories can fail us. To quote the novelist, Julian Barnes, “we adjust, embellish, [and] make sly cuts”. And one of the great pains of old age is the fading of memories, sometimes entirely through the ravages of dementia.

Yet perhaps even more important for our selves is not our memories, but whether we are remembered. Even as Flavill struggles to come to terms with a past he can’t recall, he was never forgotten. As he emerges from a coma, he is becoming aware again of the persistent embrace of people who never forgot him.

Within the Christian story there is an even larger dimension to this. The theologian John Swinton has written movingly:

“We can, and should, mourn our personal loss of memory. But if God remembers us, we are provided with a source of deep and enduring hope. We are not what we remember; we are remembered.”