Today needs a yesterday if we’re to plan for tomorrow

May 14, 2013
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Broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day, 14th May 2013

Tonight we begin Shavuot, the Jewish festival in which we recall the revelation at Mount Sinai in the days of Moses, thirty three centuries ago, when our ancestors made a covenant with God.

And tomorrow a book is published, called Permanent Present Tense, about a man with no memory. Henry Molaison, an American born in 1926, suffered from epileptic seizures, so a doctor performed experimental surgery that involved removing parts of his brain. The trouble was that for the rest of his life, another fifty five years, he completely lost the ability to form any memory lasting longer than 15 seconds. People he saw yesterday and every day he couldn’t remember today. He had no sense of identity, no ability to form relationships, and no concept of the future.

There’s no connection between Molaison and tonight’s Jewish festival except that they stand at opposite extremes of what it is for an individual, or a group, or a nation, to remember.

Jews are a people of memory. We had to remember slavery if we were to cherish freedom. We had to remember the covenant at Sinai if we were to keep our sense of loyalty to God. We had to remember where we came from and where we were going to if we were to retain our identity and values across centuries of dispersion and persecution. Memory tells us who we are and why.

Meanwhile all around us, contemporary society, with its smartphones and tablets and laptops is bombarding us with non-stop streams of news-feeds, texts, tweets, updates, and viral videos, all focussing with relentless speed on what’s happening at this moment, so that yesterday’s news is dead and forgotten while we live in a continuous, clamorous, attention-demanding now.

Many people think this is great, which in some ways it is. But to me it looks incredibly like the man who lost part of his brain so that he couldn’t remember yesterday and lived in what the book calls a permanent present tense. And that wasn’t a good place to be because it meant no sense of past, no long term goals to aspire to, no lasting relationship, and no narrative continuity to give meaning to a life. No music, just noise. The only saving grace was that he couldn’t remember what he’d lost.

Today needs a yesterday if we’re to plan for tomorrow. If we, as individuals or as humanity, are to shape a better future, we need to take time to remember the past.