Updated: Feb 28, 2022
“…the King went on, ‘I shall never forget!’ ‘You will, though,’ the Queen said, ‘if you don’t make a memorandum of it.’”[i]
Forgetfulness is endemic in most of us. My husband and I have realized that we both need to check plans, check flight and boarding times, check and double-check each other’s calendars. We forget.
A daily planner lies perched and open on my kitchen counter, and referring to it is an essential ingredient of my day. What can I mark off as accomplished? What do I need to remember about tomorrow? Relying on my memory is not enough. I need memory prompts.
A prompt of a different kind of need to remember struck me recently like a splash of cold water in the face. A friend commented, “It’s a terrible burden to define who you are.” Jolted by the thought, somewhere in the back of my mind a quote from the past surfaced: “We have forgotten who we are.”
Before I even researched the quote, I knew who the “we” referred to.
More critically than a daily planner, our world needs a memorandum for the forgetful.
Long before any such existential thoughts ever troubled me, I was sitting, at eight or nine years of age, with my parents in a large outdoor auditorium. Our family had come to this conference venue a state away from our home as part of our vacation. My parents wanted to hear certain speakers on certain topics. Why I was with them in that gathering was probably because there was nothing else for me to do at the moment—or they had the wisdom to believe the exposure might be good for me in some way.
As it turned out, being there struck a need in me I didn’t know I had.
Far from grasping all that was being said from the front of the auditorium, I did grasp this much: here were hundreds of people who believed certain tenets I knew we believed. An awakening dawned with a kind of awe and a feeling of comfort: we weren’t alone! This was something bigger than us or our group back home. I sensed an internal surge of confidence in who we were as a family and in who I was. There was definition here—I did not have to define myself. I could not have put it into words then, but I had a need to be part of something bigger than me that served to confirm what I believed and why. We all do.
The quote “We have forgotten who we are” comes from a liturgical responsive reading as part of the United Nations Environmental Sabbath Program in 1991.[ii] “We have alienated ourselves from the unfolding of the cosmos/ We have become estranged from the movements of the earth/We have turned our backs on the cycles of life…We have forgotten who we are.”
While the reading clearly bemoans the losses sustained by our physical planet, these are merely symptomatic of a prior loss. Before we inhabitants of the world realized the extent of what we were doing to our earth, we had already come a long way to losing our sense of how we got here in the first place. Not knowing how we got here, we don’t very well know who we are.
The liturgy serves to highlight what appears to be a collective loss of memory in our culture: that of the meaning of a derived personhood. In addition to the terms “alienation” and “estrangement,” other expressions such as “turned our backs”— “exploited”— “distorted”— “abused”—could well be applied to our willfully suppressed knowledge of our source.[iii] Forgetful of our source, we have no way of knowing who we are or what our personhood is supposed to mean. We have all but destroyed a sense of self-knowledge: I know who I am.
In the ensuing years beyond that conference, my childhood experience of awakened confidence bolstered me many times in a fraying culture that continually offered new ways to re-define ourselves. Seeking to obliterate the past and its so-called “entanglements” of learned behaviors and definitions has “freed” us to make up our own definitions. That has only become exaggerated to an alarming degree in my adulthood.
On the contrary—rather than being entangled, my belief was solidified that I was part of the biggest, most comprehensive definition of all: God made me and knew not only my name but who I was. He knew all about me and was guiding my life. Though I struggled much with coming-of-age shyness, skinniness, and school (each of which compounded the other), I never lost the sense of knowing where I fit and to whom I belonged. Being part of something bigger than myself, bigger than my family, I gained a sense of personhood. I didn’t—and don’t—have to keep looking for it. I do not have to take on the “terrible burden” of defining myself.
Who supplies the definitions? If God made me and made the world I inhabit, he does.
Interestingly, the poem ends with a plaintive but rather ineffectual plea: "We ask forgiveness/We ask for the gift of remembering/We ask for the strength to change." Depending on whom we are asking and what we are actually asking for, this could be a truly life-changing prayer. Merely “apologizing” to the earth will not get us very far. We need to ask for forgiveness and the gift of remembering from our Creator-source.
Our world needs a memorandum. We need to recover what we have largely forgotten: who we are.
[i] Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass [ii] Elizabeth Roberts and Elias Amidon, editors of “Earth Prayers” [iii] “For what has been known about God is plain to them because God has shown it to them…ever since the creation of the world…. So they are without excuse…” From the Bible, Romans 1:19, 20