Wednesday, September 24, 2003


Why Remember?

by Gilbert Meilaender (2003)

In the movie Memento (released in 2000) the central character, Leonard Shelby, sustains a blow to the head from an intruder who has already raped and killed Shelby’s wife. The movie tells the story of Shelby’s search to find and kill that intruder, but his search is enormously complicated by his “condition,” as he calls it. The blow to the head has left him unable to form any new memories. If he discovers a clue, he will not remember it a few minutes later. He resorts to taking Polaroid snapshots of people and writing himself notes about them on the back of the picture. He tattoos reminders on his body. He learns to bluff, pretending to recognize people who look at him as if he should know them. He is aware that others might trick him, might use him for their own purposes, might even get him to kill someone whom they wanted out of the way. And, in fact, that is precisely what happens in the movie.

The irony is that even were Leonard to succeed in avenging the death of his wife, he would not remember it. And, hence, he is locked into a never-ending search, always with a sense of desperation as he attempts to find ways to remind himself of relevant details. The movie’s tale is told in a way impossible to summarize—beginning, so to speak, from the end and moving step by step back to the time when Leonard was first injured. The viewer is constantly puzzled, therefore, because the viewer never knows more than Leonard does. We experience just a little of what it would be like to try to make sense of our world if we lacked the capacity to form new memories and connect them with older ones. Every morning Leonard wakes up knowing that his wife is dead, but entirely unable to remember how long this has been true. And at certain moments we sense both the pathos and the desperation of a life that simply cannot organize events coherently because everything is always new. “How am I supposed to heal if I can’t feel time?” Leonard asks.

To watch Memento is to be drawn into reflection about the place of memory in our sense of self and in the construction of a meaningful life. The more we enter into Leonard’s desperation, the more apparent it becomes that memory is central to our understanding of what it means to live as a human being. There are mysteries here well worth pondering, even if we cannot get to the bottom of them.

In its October 2002 meeting, the President’s Council on Bioethics heard from two experts in memory research (James McGaugh and Daniel Schachter) about current research on the formation of memory, attempts to enhance memory, and the possibility of blocking the formation of long-term “explicit” memory of certain events. (Explicit memory may be contrasted with implicit memory, which is the retention of certain skills, such as “how” to ride a bicycle. Explicit memory is the memory of “what,” of events. Thus, Dr. McGaugh noted that it might be possible for a person suffering from Alzheimer’s to remember the mechanics of playing golf while being unable to remember how many strokes he had taken on any hole.) For now, at least, it appears that we are more able to block memory than to enhance it, and we can imagine that such erasure of memory might be very appealing in certain traumatic circumstances.

Anti-anxiety drugs or beta-blockers can be used to prevent the formation of long-term memories. This is possible because, in the formation and consolidation of those memories, our emotions play a significant role. For example, the rush of adrenaline during intense emotional experience may help to form especially powerful memories. Because that is true, we can understand why a beta-blocker, which counteracts the effects of adrenaline, might, if administered immediately after a highly emotional experience, diminish the strength of our memory of the event.

We can imagine persons in a range of circumstances who might experience severe trauma and be likely to suffer post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)—those who’ve witnessed a horrible accident, soldiers in battle, a woman who has been raped, rescue workers at a disaster, a child who has seen his mother killed (or, perhaps, who has simply seen his mother die). If such people were administered beta-blockers soon after the event and for several weeks thereafter, they would (as Dr. McGaugh put it in conversation with the Council) experience “a significant decrease in the expression of PTSD” months later. Why should they suffer such painful memories if the means to relieve them are at hand?

Clearly, the question is more complicated than I have thus far made it seem. We do not want to remember everything that happens in life, and we need to be able to forget a lot. To take a striking literary example, Dr. Watson was astonished to realize that the same Sherlock Holmes who had written a technical monograph distinguishing 140 different forms of cigar, cigarette, and pipe tobacco (and the differences in their ash) was entirely ignorant of the Copernican Theory and the bodies of our solar system.

“You appear to be astonished,” he [Holmes] said, smiling at my [Watson’s] expression of surprise. “Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it.”

“To forget it!”

“You see,” he explained, “I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. . . .”

“But the Solar System!” I protested.

“What the deuce is it to me?” he interrupted impatiently: “You say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.”

Whatever we may think of Holmes’ qualifications as a scientist of the brain or his judgment of what is likely to be useful to him in his work, he is right to see that we must forget a great deal if we are to live at all effectively and efficiently—though, as we shall see, such a pronounced “Holmesian” sense of mastery over what one forgets and remembers may be less fitting for human beings than a more humble sense of organizing, reorganizing, and giving new meaning. But it is clear that the memory must sort and organize experience for us, not just retain an unorganized collection of events. Why not, then, as an aspect of this sorting activity, take steps that are within our power to keep our lives from being crippled or burdened by painful memories?

There could, of course, be complications that would have to be considered in any plan to block memory formation. Criminal prosecutions of those guilty of heinous deeds might depend precisely on not blocking the memory of their victims or of witnesses, on retaining as clear and precise a recollection as possible. Or, to take a very different sort of complication, suppose it were possible to keep soldiers from remembering the horrors of battle—so that they experienced no interval of hesitation at the thought of combat. That might make them more efficient and effective killers, but would we really think it desirable?

Nevertheless, we can think of instances that might tempt us and might, at first, seem relatively free of complication. Imagine rescue workers sent in to search for those trapped in the rubble of the World Trade Center after the attack of September 11, likely to carry with them forever horrible memories of the dead and the maimed. They could start on beta-blockers immediately after emerging from the rubble and perhaps be spared. Or a woman who had seen her young child murdered could likewise immediately begin medication, lest the rest of her life should be consumed by such painful memories.

Even in such cases there are complications that might still trouble us. Granting that these people could consent to take the medication, how could they know or decide in that moment whether doing so was wise? Is that the moment in which to decide whether one wants to carry such painful memories along throughout life or to erase them? Perhaps we could argue that rescue workers, knowing that they can at any time find themselves in such tragic circumstances, might give advance authorization to be so treated after the fact.

But can one actually think this through knowledgably in advance of the experience? And, more important still, if a life is essentially a narrative, we have to ask how we want to think of ourselves in relation to that narrative. Am I simply the author of my story—picking and choosing what is to be included in the remembered, organized account? Or is my authorship a more limited one—finding ways to make do, to fit even traumatic experiences into the overall story and thereby make sense of it? Exaggerating our own authorship ignores important characteristics of the story of a life. It ignores, for example, the fact that the first years of our life become part of our own memory largely through the shared memories of others. It ignores the fact that one’s life exists not only in the privacy of one’s own memory but also in the stories others tell about us. Perhaps, therefore, a certain modesty is in order when we think of constructing the story of our life. Even were we able to deal with painful memories by erasing them, it might still be better to struggle—with the help of others—to fit them into a coherent story that is the narrative of our life.

Even granting that, however, we might still wonder whether it would be wrong to block painful memories. Do we have some kind of obligation to remember? If so, to whom would such a duty be owed? I suspect we can imagine circumstances in which we might think that there is indeed an obligation not to forget. For the sake of victims treated unjustly we may need to remember the evil done them, and, in fact, this might be necessary not just for the sake of the victims themselves but for our common humanity. Not to remember the face of evil is to miss the evil of which we ourselves are capable. Not to remember evils done to others is to make it impossible for us to tell the stories of their lives fully and truthfully, which is required not for the sake of vengeance but for the sake of justice. (This is especially true when we remember that the story of one’s life is not only one’s private creation but is dependent also on the memories of others and the stories they tell.)

Quite often, to be sure, there may be no easy or foolproof way to integrate painful memories into the ongoing story of one’s life. We may need help to manage such a task. It may call for imagination, radical rethinking of who we are, the search for a new direction that can, at least to some extent, redeem the past by taking it up into a way of life that gives it new meaning. Thus, for example, in 1957, the son of Hermann Goering entered a cloistered monastery. “He had done so, as I recall,” David Novak writes,

because he could not live in the world any other way considering his name and his family heritage. This news report touched me deeply because so much of our being-in-the-world is not our own decision. We begin to discover in late adolescence the limits of our own existence and, concurrently, the moral possibilities for us within these limits. Hermann Goering’s son did not choose to be Hermann Goering’s son; he did not choose to be born a German in the 1930s. What he did choose, however, was to make his own life in a place where everyone assumes a new name, in a place not of Germany or even of this world.

There is something deeply humane about such a decision. Goering’s son did not, of course, have the option of simply forgetting the painful truth of who he was, but, had he been able to do so, I suspect that it would have diminished rather than enhanced his person.

Human life has a narrative quality, and, in Stephen Crites’ felicitous phrase, each present moment is a “tensed” present. It stretches out in two directions—incorporating the past and reaching out toward the future. Each moment, therefore, contains a narrative in miniature, and every life is a story whose plot may be partially hidden in the present. We cannot know the full significance of any moment in that story—what it contributes and how it affects other moments—unless and until we can read the story as a whole. If we cannot know the full meaning of any moment in a life apart from its place in the entire narrative of that life, our task is not so much to erase embarrassing, troubling, or painful moments, but, as best we can and with whatever help we are given, to attempt to redeem those moments by drawing them into a life whose whole transforms and transfigures them.

Perhaps, therefore, the issue is not so much whether we have an obligation to remember—though there is something to that—but whether the erasure of painful memories does not diminish our humanity. “Remember,” the ancient Israelites are commanded by their Lord, “remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you.” Even the memory of their bondage is not to be erased, but, rather, drawn into a story that, by God’s power and grace, is transformed into one of redemption. To be sure, the Hebrew prophets sometimes describe God’s forgiveness of Israel’s sin as “not remembering.” Perhaps that is fitting for God, or perhaps the metaphor ought not be pressed. But, in any case, when the prophet Ezekiel describes the restored and reconstituted Israel—in which, presumably, God will no longer remember Israel’s sin—Israel’s own task is described quite differently. “Then you will remember your evil ways, and your deeds that were not good.” Human beings, at any rate, are not to erase the memories that give them pain but to place those memories into a new, larger, and redemptive story.

This is appropriate, at least in part, because genuinely human life has an embodied (and therefore limited) character to which we should be faithful. If we consider the facts recounted earlier about how we might prevent painful memories from forming, we are, in fact, reminded that we are bodies. The beta-blockers or anti-anxiety drugs that block formation of long-term memories are drugs that work on the body in countless ways. They do more than prevent the formation and consolidation of memory. Or, perhaps better, we should say that they do that precisely because they affect other aspects of our bodily life—in particular, the emotions. It is not fitting, therefore, that we should construct the narrative of our life in a way that largely bypasses its embodied character.

In the famous sixth book of the Aeneid, Aeneas travels to the underworld in search of his father, Anchises. He finds him “deep in the lush green of a valley”—in Elysium, where the souls of the blessed are. Most of these souls, however, are not destined to remain there indefinitely. Rather, most are to be reincarnated in the bodies of human beings—a fact which, in the poem, provides Anchises the opportunity to survey for Aeneas the future generations of Romans who will be his descendants. When Aeneas inquires how this will take place, Anchises points to the river Lethe, around which many of the souls are gathered.

Souls for whom

A second body is in store: their drink

Is water of Lethe, and it frees from care

In long forgetfulness.

These souls, Anchises tells Aeneas, will drink of Lethe “That there unmemoried they may see again / The heavens and wish re-entry into bodies.” Having lost all memory of their former life, these souls will now be given entirely new identities. It is not that a previous identity will undergo transformation by being taken up into what is new and thereby reconfigured; rather, it is that these selves, since they are not essentially bodies at all, can be “unmemoried” without any sense of loss. Their memories are no part of who they truly are, because their bodies are not. Perhaps this makes good sense if we think the body accidental to the meaning and nature of a human life, but if, on the contrary, we do not merely inhabit but are our bodies, to be “unmemoried” would be to become either more or less than human. Unless we think of ourselves as gods, the more likely result is clear.

How essential memory is to our sense of what it means to have a human life may be seen if we consider a life “story” that—almost—is no longer a story, because, lacking memory, it lacks coherence, lacks connection, lacks a story line. In a chapter titled “The Lost Mariner,” Oliver Sacks has described the life of such a person—Jimmie G., who suffered from severe retrograde amnesia. (Jimmie’s condition, though not caused by an injury, is not unlike that of Leonard Shelby in Memento. It is a similar story of one who is essentially “lost” in the world, though Jimmie, of course, has not embarked on any mission of vengeance.) Jimmie had served, and served competently, in the Navy until the time of his discharge in 1965. It was in 1975 that he was admitted to a home in which he came under the care of Dr. Sacks. Yet, he could remember almost nothing after the year 1945.

Jimmie had been drafted in 1943 at age seventeen and had served as a radio operator on a submarine. He could remember clearly the end of the war and could recount his plans for the future at the time the war ended, but that was as far as his memory went. Nineteen-forty-five was still his “present.” He could recall the town where he grew up and his school days; he could name the submarines on which he had served; he remained fluent in Morse Code; he was good at solving puzzles (so long as they could be done relatively quickly). But his memory stopped at 1945, and he thought of himself as nineteen years old.

This was, however, by no means the most devastating result of his illness. Far more aw(e)ful was the fact that he could form no new memories that would last more than a few seconds. David Hume famously claimed that human beings are no more than collections or bundles of sensations. In Jimmie, Sacks notes, one sees what such a “Humean” person would actually be like—“every sentence uttered being forgotten as soon as it is said, everything forgotten within a few minutes of being seen.” Jimmie’s problem seems to have been precisely the inability to form long-term memories, to consolidate short-term memory into anything lasting. That is to say, his problem was a pronounced and extended version of what we might deliberately bring about in much more limited and defined circumstances if we were to administer beta-blockers to rescue workers emerging from the rubble. “It was not, apparently, that he failed to register in memory, but that the memory traces were fugitive in the extreme, and were apt to be effaced within a minute, often less. . . .”

We can ponder the meaning for human life of memory loss—or erasure—if we take note of Jimmie’s inability to make the events of his life “connect.” He has many moments of experience, of course, but each is new. Each is, in the strictest sense of the word, moment-ary. Hence—and does this not seem to be crucial?—one cannot discuss Jimmie’s condition with him. “If a man has lost a leg or an eye, he knows he has lost a leg or an eye; but if he has lost a self—himself—he cannot know it, because he is no longer there to know it.” We might imagine—on a smaller and less destructive scale, to be sure—a world in which some of us, sometimes, blocked the formation of painful memories and therefore did not fully share a past, could not fully connect, with others whose memory of those events was intact. How could we live truthfully, or confidently, in such a world?

If to have a human life is, at least in part, to have a life story in progress, then Jimmie has a life largely in the memories of others. It is by no means unimportant that they should so honor his shared humanity that they, so to speak, continually sustain and construct the narrative of his life, but his loss remains great. Each of us is constantly active in memory, constructing and reconstructing the story of his or her life. We forget some things, of course, as we must. And over time we give new and different significance to events we might once have thought fixed in their meaning; they take on a new shape as the overall shape of life changes. But to construct the narrative of one’s life not through thought and conversation, struggle and prayer, but simply by erasing some of the materials of that life is to risk losing what is essential to being human. If we cannot say who we have been, we can never know who we are. Our humanity lies not in mastery over the construction of our life story but in the virtues by which we accept the limits of the body, live truthfully in the face of the past, and seek to give new meaning to what is painful or misguided in that past.

It is true, of course, that the more painful the memory, the more difficult it may be to believe that anything in the future could transfigure it or could draw it into a life story that we could bear to acknowledge as our own—and the more tempted, therefore, we may be to seek a technological fix. At the very end of the story of Job, in its canonical version, the Lord restores Job’s fortune—indeed, his material and familial blessings become even greater than they were before his trials. Scholars, of course, often characterize this prose epilogue as an addendum to the poem that tells Job’s story—an addendum that drastically alters the story’s meaning. Instead of a poem in which Job simply suffers inexplicably, we are given—with the epilogue—a story in which Job’s suffering is finally redeemed and given coherent meaning.

Many—unable or unwilling to suppose that Job’s sufferings might be in any sense redeemed—are likely to prefer the poem without the epilogue. They will prefer Archibald MacLeish’s J.B., in which, without any claims for redemptive meaning, one simply bears what comes with human dignity.

The candles in churches are out.

The lights have gone out in the sky.

Blow on the coal of the heart

And we’ll see, by and by.

But note that neither reading—neither a reading which encourages us to hope that what is painful in the past may be transfigured and given new, redemptive meaning; nor a reading which encourages us to bear the ills of life with human dignity, finding in them occasions for courage, endurance, and mutual support—neither of these readings supposes that simply erasing the painful past takes seriously the narrative quality of human life.

“How great, my God, is this force of memory, how exceedingly great! It is like a vast and boundless subterranean shrine. Who has ever reached the bottom of it? Yet this is a faculty of my mind and belongs to my nature; nor can I myself grasp all that I am.” Thus, St. Augustine, in one of the most famous discussions of memory ever written. Dive as deep as we may into that “subterranean shrine,” into the depths of the memories that constitute the story of our life, and we cannot yet see the full meaning of any of life’s events. Caught as we are in the midst of the story, doing our best to follow a plot whose twists and turns we may not entirely fathom, we cannot see anything from the perspective of the end of the story—and, therefore, cannot say fully who we are or what the events of our life may mean.

That is the gist of Augustine’s “confession”: that because only God can catch the heart and hold it still, because we cannot attain that authorial perspective on the end (and, therefore, the full meaning) of our life, God knows us better than we know ourselves. Quite a different spirit is expressed in the famous claim made by Rousseau at the outset of his Confessions:

Let the last trump sound when it will, I shall come forward with this work in my hand, to present myself before my Sovereign Judge, and proclaim aloud: “ . . . I have bared my secret soul as Thou thyself hast seen it, Eternal Being.”

One who supposed that he could attain that godlike perspective on the meaning of his life might perhaps be in a position to know what experiences were so painful that they were better obliterated from memory. If, on the contrary, we know ourselves as bodies who live in time, whose lives must have a narrative quality but who cannot know the end or full meaning of our life story, then our task is not to erase memory but to connect and integrate memories—to live the story as best one can who does not yet know how the plot will work out. Perhaps, in so doing, some of us will believe that there is no past so painful that it cannot be transfigured and redeemed in a truthful story. Perhaps, in so doing, others among us may suspect that the best we can do is blow on the coal of the heart and see by and by (how the plot takes its course). But neither approach will find good reason to act as if we already knew the full meaning of life’s story. In either case we are led to acknowledge our limits, to honor the narrative quality of human life, to accept our need to sustain the life stories of one another, and to wonder at the mysterious depths of a “memoried” human life.

Gilbert Meilaender is a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics. The views expressed here are his own and do not represent the Council.

Copyright (c) 2003 First Things 135 (August/September 2003): 20-24.

Monday, September 22, 2003


Mt. Whitney: There And Back Again

Mt. Whitney wildernessKurt and I got back late last night after taking a short trip to Mt. Whitney which started last Friday.

Day 1. At first it seemed cosmic forces were stacked against us. Kurt's dad was sick about two hours into the hike and decided to turn back, which was going to make our car to car shuttle tricky (we were going to start at one car and end up at another car at another trailhead). Kurt and I soldiered on, but realized that we'd forgotten a necessary piece of equipment to make the backcountry stove work (the pump for the white gas). It was looking like we weren't going to have hot meals until we turned MacGyver and made a crude stove out of rocks. Then we didn't have a spoon, but a piece of Kurt's camera equipment did the trick there. And I later found not one, but two spoons along the trail. Thank goodness for sloppy, irresponsible hikers.

marmotDay 2. The next day we went over a grueling steep pass (Old Army Pass) and I later saw what looked like a fat waddling squirrel; it done be a marmot! We were following not a trail, but a cross-country route suggested by a book. Without topo maps, we rambled past some beautiful alpine terrain trying to follow the route, and maybe went over the wrong pass now and then, but we ended up where we wanted to, set for the hike to the top of Whitney the next day. That night our stove got more elaborate as we incorporated an old sardine can we found into our scheme.

Mt. WhitneyDay 3. The day started with another grueling, trailless climb over an immensely high ridge. Kurt took a low route and I took a high route which took me past some dangerous cliffs. I viewed my route as a gravity puzzle which finesse and wits could solve. A couple of times I heard rattle snakes and went around them -- or maybe the altitude was making me hallucinate. It was slow going, but we both managed, and met up at the top. We were then in a position to ditch our packs and go the last 2.5 miles to the Mt. Whitney peak, starting with less than a quart of water between the two of us. The view from the top was pretty cool. From the 14,497 ft summit, I could see several mountain ranges to the east, as well as the town of Lone Pine far below. The view to the west and south was obscured by the smoke of a fire that raged several miles away.

At that point, we needed to make a decision. Were we going to camp another night, or hightail it back to the car by sundown? It was 3 pm and the car was 11 miles away and 1.2 miles down. We had already gone 4 miles, gaining about 0.5 miles in elevation. One of us needed to get to the trailhead before the store there closed. We needed to return a bear can to the store and Kurt's dad said he was going to leave the key to my car at the store. (Before he turned back on Day 1, he agreed that he would drive it from where we started to the trailhead, Whitney Portal.) It was decided that I would haul butt down the mountain and get the key, leaving our remaining water with Kurt, who was suffering from dehydration. And I totally hauled, and didn't have any water for about 4 miles. In my relentless haste, I remember passing several groups. About 7 miles from the top, I met up with a guy named Wally, a newspaper publisher from Mammoth in his mid-40s. We talked about religion, physics, dancing, and why everyone had those walking sticks (I guess they take the strain off the knees and ankles). If it weren't for the conversation with Wally, that last 4 miles would have seemed even more endless. But end it did, about 4 hours from when I was on the summit. Which means I went about 2.7 MPH down an average grade of more than 10%.

Fortunately the store was still open and I got the key. And the car was easy to find. But I was worried about Kurt. Was he going to make it back? The sky was quickly getting dark. And as the old despair saying goes, It's always darkest... just before it goes pitch black. And I didn't wish that upon Kurt. Just as I was getting prepared to sleep in the car, thinking Kurt had found some place to sleep in the wilds, he showed up with some people. There was much rejoicing and we gave the people a ride down to Lone Pine. We all ate pizza and then I took the people to their airplane. Yes, their airplane! I drove right onto the Lone Pine Airport runway and left them to fly home to San Jose in a friggin' airplane. I wanted to do some donuts on the runway, but thought better of it and then we drove home.

At Kurt's place we talked about how our feet hurt and watched some cartoons from the Home Star Runner site.

The End.

Tuesday, September 16, 2003


Meditations on Love

"This is my commandment: love one another; as I have loved you, so you are to love one another. If there is this love among you, then all will know that you are my disciples." (John 13)

"Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind and love your neighbor as yourself." (Luke 10)

It may be better to call this 'love' charity, since love has become a word so often manipulated that it may lose the meaning Jesus here intended. Charity means love in the Christian sense. But it does not mean an emotion. It is not a state of the feelings but of the will; that state of the will which we have naturally for ourselves and must learn to have about other people.

Charity for our neighbors is a different thing from liking or affection. We like some people, and not others; this is not a sin or virtue, just a fact. However, what we do about it is either sinful or virtuous. As Paul says,

"The parts of the Body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts of the Body that we regard as less honorable we invest with greater honor, and the unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so combined the various parts of the Body, giving special honor to the unpresentable part, that there may be no sense of division in the Body, but that all its organs might have the same concern for one another. If one organ suffers, all suffer together; if one is honored, all rejoice together." - I Corinthians 12:22-26.

In other words, the way God designed our bodies is a model for understanding our lives together as a church: every part dependent on every other part, the parts we mention and pay attention to and the parts we don't; the parts we readily see and the parts we don't often see. The parts we don't naturally pay attention to are paid extra attention, for all the parts need attention, though some would not naturally attract attention. As a body, it is a simple fact that if one part hurts, every other part is involved in the hurt, and in the healing. If one part flourishes, every other part enters into the exuberance.

Paul wrote this, not from an ivory tower; but from the warmth of the fire that blazed in and among the brethren at the Church of Ephesus. As John Skidmore says, "The Ephesian brethren had this powerful understanding of the role of status in people's lives. The most important status is emotional -- how people are respected and valued from each other. They understood that the more beautiful, handsome, socially skilled, athletic, tall, well-endowed people naturally attract to themselves honor. There is nothing wrong with that. It is a simple fact of life. The fact was acknowledged. But they also understood the brokenness and pain that comes from not being honored, wanted, respected, sought after. So they made it a practice to seek after, want, honor and respect those that did not naturally attract such things. They shared the sight of Christ - seeking what was not obvious to carnal eyes, and had the hope of Christ. Please remember the line that precedes the famous scripture - 'If any man is in Christ, he is a new creature...' This preceding line was the Ephesian secret wisdom..."

Natural liking and affection make it easier to be charitable towards others, and should normally be encouraged. But we should look out that our liking for one person makes us uncharitable, or mean, to someone else. It is also wrong to think that the way to become more charitable, more loving, is to sit around trying to manufacture feelings of affection. Some people may be more 'cold' by temperament, but that does not cut them out from the command to love.

C.S. Lewis suggested that one "not waste time bothering whether you 'love' your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him... Whenever we do good to another self, just because it is a self, made (like us) by God, and desiring its own happiness as we desire ours, we shall have learned to love it a little more or, at least, to dislike it less."

"Consequently, though Christian charity sounds a very cold thing to people whose heads are full of sentimentality, and though it is quite distinct from affection, yet it leads to affection. The difference between a Christian and a worldly man is not that a worldly man has only affections or 'likings' and the Christian has only 'charity'. The worldly man treats certain people kindly because he 'likes' them: the Christian, trying to treat every one kindly, finds himself liking more and more people as he goes on--including people he could not even have imagined himself liking in the beginning."

I have found that when I am open to loving people, even those that desperately annoy others, I not only love them with my will, but the Lord even grants affection. Perhaps it is because I think there is something special and wonderful about everyone, a conviction I believe the Lord placed in me at a young age, and which is only further encouraged by Scriptures concerning the variety of gifts and the need for unity. And I've seen this at work, beginning with the fellowship of believers who encouraged me in college (and continue to encourage me to this day--I pray I return the favor). As time goes on, I see that the sincere desire to love and see our brothers and sisters with Christ's eyes is a hallmark of a healthy, vibrant fellowship; the kind of fellowship that existed in Ephesus so many years ago.

In summary, Christian love, either towards God or people, is an affair of the will. It is dangerous to interpret the Scriptures based on what we feel is fair or right or natural. If you are trying to do God's will, you are trying to obey his great commandment of love, which is a matter if setting your will in line with His. He will give us feelings of love as He pleases. We cannot create them, and cannot demand them as a right. Our feelings come and go, His love for us does not.

Saturday, September 13, 2003


Johnny's Passing

I'm a Johnny Cash fan. I guess it's inherited from my dad. Well, Johnny passed away yesterday. He was a cool guy, a sincere guy, a guy who made mistakes, but knew to turn to Jesus. So in honor of him, here's one of my favorite songs by him, where he promises to his sweetheart that he'll "walk the line," watch over his heart and actions, to do right by her.

Johnny Cash

I keep a close watch on this heart of mine,
I keep my eyes wide open all the time,
I keep the ends out for the ties that bind,
Because you're mine, I walk the line.

I find it very, very easy to be true,
I find myself alone when each day is through,
Yes, I'll admit that I'm a fool for you,
Because you're mine, I walk the line.

You've got a way to keep me on your side,
You give me cause for love that I can't hide,
For you I know I'd even try to turn the tide,
Because you're mine I walk the line.

As sure as night is dark and day is light,
I keep you on my mind both day and night,
And happiness proves that I'm right,
Because you're mine I walk the line.

Thursday, September 11, 2003


Law, Morality and Religion

I follow laws with varying degrees of zeal (and success). I am most zealous about those laws that seem reasonable to my mind, informed by both secular and religious reasoning. I am least zealous about laws that I think are unnecessary and silly, and some even violate the moral law and must in conscience be disobeyed. And in the middle, there are those laws whose point I can see (jay walking, speeding limits) but which I follow with slipshod success.
Perhaps I should obey all the laws of the land, as Paul says we should
submit to the sovereign authorities. (However, in our democracy, the sovereign is the people, i.e., I am one of the sovereign, which seems to muddle the issue. Does one then submit to the General Will of the people? That discussion is for another time.)

I wholeheartedly believe that religiously informed morality teaches one how to think about laws, particularly the concept of following the "spirit of the law," it's ultimate purpose or design. I believe that at the heart of law, politics and morality is religion (I'd rather say "faith" or "belief", but let's stick with religion for now). I agree with Richard John Neuhaus when he says, "Politics is in largest part a function of culture; at the heart of culture is morality; and at the heart of morality are the ultimate truths we call religion."

To live in this world, one must believe in some kind of ultimate truths. From those who are trying to work out morality for themselves, one often hears appeals to an ultimate principle of not hurting other people or, perhaps more generally, not adversely affecting others. But that begs the question, What exactly hurts or adversely affects people? Which leads to the question of what is ultimately good or bad for a person, and this is a question of ultimate truth, i.e., a religious question. What is the yardstick for right and wrong? Could it be that the things all humans instinctually know to be right (to greater or lesser degrees) come from the >same ultimate source, which informs us all through the conscience regarding the "spirit of the law," the same spirit behind all good earthly laws?

While some praise the idea of people reasoning out for themselves what is right and wrong, this is entirely unworkable. Despite the moral anarchy this could wreak with everyone doing "his own thing," we still have the fact that unless one raised oneself on a "Castaway"-style desert island, no one reasons in isolation, generating a code of conduct ex nihilo. We are surrounded with the ongoing conversation of our civilization, stretching back through the ages, going back even to the pioneers of monotheism. The morality we have in the US today (if one can even speak of such a thing in the singular) is based on institutions, traditions, and in particular, on documents and teachings which serve as a common basis (Moses, Jesus, Aristotle, Jefferson, Camus, ...). One is perfectly free to both question and fall back on these authorities, and so the conversation continues.

Wednesday, September 10, 2003


Thanks to a tip from Ryan, I think I'll be taking a Salsa dancing class starting next week. I saw some Salsa in Europe and tried a bit with Jessica in Mexico. I'd like to know what I'm doing. It looks fun!

Speaking of dancing... I spent most of the morning putting together some simple algorithms so one of the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship students can complete his project by next week. He's working on calculating the probablity of capture when you have two asteroids flying by each other together in space. Unlike "two ships passing in the night," these asteroids are big enough to exert a pull on each other which sometimes makes them come together for a little celestial dance; some bind together for life in a process of collision, others drift apart after their brief dance, returning to the darkness and uncertainty of space...

Tuesday, September 09, 2003


Space, Weddings, and Mayans ( O My ! )

HeliopolisI just got a call from a reporter at the Seattle Times. I've received only a few calls from reporters in the past few years, mostly about space development. I'm usually nervous that I'll say something stupid, but then it goes okay. This reporter was curious about my involvement with a mysterious company known as Blue Origin, a space research company owned by's Jeff Bezos which has "the ultimate goal of contributing to an enduring human presence in space." Last year, a group of students and I worked on a design study for a profitable, large space construction and manufacturing facility known as Heliopolis. So I spoke a bit about that project and where I thought private companies like Blue Origin could make a contribution toward expanding the human presence in space.

Wish you were here.This past weekend, I went to a wedding of a good friend since third grade, Colin Bishop. He and Selenne Aguilar were married in a big Catholic church in San Francisco, just a few blocks from the notorious corner of Haight & Ashbury. The service was in Spanish and English, as was the reception (the music was Mexican, but the food was, I guess, Polish?). The whole Anaheim gang was there in full effect: Sean, Alex, Chris, John, Patrick. We had a great time hangin' at the reception and the night before at Lefty O'Douls.

There've been a lot of weddings this year. But I guess that's it for weddings this year. I expect more, up until the Last Day.

I would talk about the trip Jessica and I took to the Yucatan, but I'm a bit tired right now. So you'll just have to wait. So nyaa!!!