Some archaeologists argue humans have practiced burial rituals for up to 300,000 years. Most agree there is clear evidence of ceremonial activity associated with death for at least 100,000 years. Some careful observers suggest an extended period of grief — and even particular social behavior — associated with the death of elephants, dolphins, and some primates.
In any case, an acute awareness of and respect for death seems co-indicated with cognition. Rather than cogito, ergo sum, we might say cogito, ergo non esse scio. Non-being (non esse) is also of concern to us.
Elie Wiesel opened his 1986 Nobel Lecture with a fable on the place, purpose, and power of memory:
A Hasidic legend tells us that the great Rabbi Baal-Shem-Tov, Master of the Good Name, also known as the Besht, undertook an urgent and perilous mission: to hasten the coming of the Messiah. The Jewish people, all humanity were suffering too much, beset by too many evils. They had to be saved, and swiftly. For having tried to meddle with history, the Besht was punished; banished along with his faithful servant to a distant island. In despair, the servant implored his master to exercise his mysterious powers in order to bring them both home. “Impossible”, the Besht replied. “My powers have been taken from me”. “Then, please, say a prayer, recite a litany, work a miracle”. “Impossible”, the Master replied, “I have forgotten everything”. They both fell to weeping.
Suddenly the Master turned to his servant and asked: “Remind me of a prayer – any prayer .” “If only I could”, said the servant. “I too have forgotten everything”. “Everything – absolutely everything?” “Yes, except – “Except what?” “Except the alphabet”. At that the Besht cried out joyfully: “Then what are you waiting for? Begin reciting the alphabet and I shall repeat after you…”. And together the two exiled men began to recite, at first in whispers, then more loudly: “Aleph, beth, gimel, daleth…”. And over again, each time more vigorously, more fervently; until, ultimately, the Besht regained his powers, having regained his memory.
I love this story, for it illustrates the messianic expectation -which remains my own. And the importance of friendship to man’s ability to transcend his condition. I love it most of all because it emphasizes the mystical power of memory. Without memory, our existence would be barren and opaque, like a prison cell into which no light penetrates; like a tomb which rejects the living. Memory saved the Besht, and if anything can, it is memory that will save humanity. For me, hope without memory is like memory without hope.
Today we pause to remember. In the words of the President, “It’s a time to remember the heroes… Because every time we cast our votes or speak our minds without fear, it’s because they fought for our right to do that. Every chance we get to make a better life for ourselves and our families is possible because generations of patriots fought to keep America a land of opportunity, where anyone – of any race, any religion, from any background – can make it if they try. Our country was born out of a desire to be free, and every day since, it’s been protected by our men and women in uniform – people who believed so deeply in America, they were willing to give their lives for it.”
Earlier this month we dedicated the lower Manhattan museum built to memorialize the horror and heroism of September 11, 2001. In it and with it we remember the men and women in NYPD and FDNY uniforms and no uniform at all who confronted the chaos of that day with courage, compassion, and creativity. This week the USS Cole is in New York for Fleet Week. Somehow this physical link between what happened at Aden with what happened Downtown helps make positive meaning. But I’m not sure I can precisely explain why. We mourn our losses. We are inspired by the memory of those who on the edge of death demonstrate devotion to life and love. In memory’s matrix we weave together otherwise separate strings.
And sometimes, like Wiesel’s rabbi, out of neglect or pride or distraction we forget.
Last week a leading-light in homeland security chastised me. For the second year in a row, he said, HLSWatch had failed to mention the April 19 anniversary of the Oklahoma City Bombing. Next year it will be twenty years since Timothy McVeigh, with the help of others, killed 168 and injured more than 600 others. It remains the most deadly incident of domestic terrorism in United States history.
This year April 19 happened to fall on Holy Saturday. According to my day book I worked on a contribution to a new British textbook on self-organizing complexity. (An excerpt quoting Bak and Paczuski: “Thus, if the tape of history were to be rerun, with slightly different random noise, the resulting outcome would be completely different. Some large catastrophic events would be avoided, but other would inevitably occur.”) I went to church. (From the Easter Vigil liturgy: “In the midst of life we are in death… Thou shalt show me the path of life; in thy presence is the fullness of joy, and at thy right hand there is pleasure evermore.” There is no mention of McVeigh or his victims. I did not, evidently, give them an even momentary thought.
Like the rabbi, in my forgetfulness I am reduced to grief. But with the help of my colleague’s better memory, I am restored to memory and with him — and you — to the possibility of positive meaning. Memory alone is not sufficient. For a hundred and more millennia we have adorned our dead with ochre sea shells or bleached animal bones or other talismans of meaning. With these rituals we seek to redeem memory from despair and claim renewed strength for living.
According to my written record of this just past April 19, while entirely neglecting the death of so many innocents, I did read a poem by Thylias Moss that concludes with:
… Besides every
ritual is stylized, has patterns and repetitions
suitable for adaptation to dance. Here come toe shoes,
brushstrokes, oxymorons. Joy
is at our tongue tips: Let the great thirsts and hungers
of the world be the marvelous thirsts, glorious hungers.
Let heartbreak be alternative to coffeebreak, five
midmorning minutes devoted to emotion.
On this Memorial Day may we each find at least five minutes for emotion and heartbreak; may we thirst and hunger greatly, marvelously, gloriously long after the picnic is done.
Thanks for reminding me.