We’re coming to the time of year now when we hear a lot about the issue of remembering. 11th November just past was Armistice Day, the date in 1918 when the First World War came to an end. Many will have observed a minute of silence at 11 a.m. in honour of this anniversary. This, of course, is followed by Remembrance Sunday when many people will gather in villages, towns and cities to remember and commemorate those who died in both World Wars and the many conflicts since. This being Northern Ireland and we here having a very complex and often traumatic history, such things give rise to a certain amount of disagreement and even tension in how and who different people choose to remember. So, while many will choose to remember, many will not. That’s how it is in a reasonably free society I guess.
I’ve been on a journey with these issues in my own life over the last few years. I have been challenged to think about what I believe and why I believe it. I have confronted some of the myths I grew up with and have come to see them as myths, rather than truths. I have found it a deeply rewarding time in my life.
As part of that process this year I want to turn my mind to exploring what we mean by remembering. Stick with me here as I try to offer a different definition of what the word ‘remember’ might represent. Let’s break it into two parts- ‘re’ and ‘member’.
Re: once again
Member: part of a body
When we do this, a new definition might look like this:
Re-member: to once again become part of one body.
Now, what would the implication be of taking this as a definition of remembering? What effect might it have on how we remember and on how we treat the whole idea of remembrance?
Let’s begin by focussing on that image of a body. We know that not all parts of a body are the same. In fact, the parts of a body can be very different and have different positions and different functions. In one way, they can look like they are working and existing in isolation of each other. An ear hears. An eye sees. A nose smells. A hand grasps. A leg walks. The nose isn’t an ear and doesn’t need and ear in order to smell. The eye doesn’t need the nose in order to see something. The leg doesn’t need the hand in order to propel the body forward.
However, when we go to a deeper level; when we get under the skin if you will, we see that while from an outside perspective the members of the body look like they are operating independently, they are in fact part of the same bodily system. They all rely on the heart pumping life blood to them and on the brain interpreting and directing what they are doing. Many parts; one body.
What would it mean for us all to realise that, though we have different positions and different opinions and histories, we are in fact part of one body- a body larger than our own narrowly defined group? Many of us claim to be in this mode. But, speaking personally, I know that even though I aspire to being one part of a larger body, I still have my shadowy prejudices and own sense of in-groups and out-groups. Understanding this and trying to quieten this in my life has been a job of work. I am working against my history and the myths I spoke of earlier on. But I am working on them.
Further, though, what if we worked to accept the definition of ‘re-membering’ set out above, and see the task of remembering not simply to call to mind people, things and events from the past, but also to assist in bringing us all closer together as part of that one larger body? I’m not arguing for an either-or description of remembering. I’m drawn towards a both-and description- calling to mind the people and events we hold dear AND doing so in a way that furthers a ‘re-membering’; bringing all people closer together.
Might this have implications for those who gather for commemorations and Remembrance events? Might they be called to be sensitive in a new way to how others (other parts of the same body) are effected by their gatherings? Might they be challenged to include others in a new way or to reach out in heretofore unexplored directions? I believe it may be so.
However, there is another both-and dimension to what I am saying here. Not only is there an implication for those who choose to remember to review how they do so. There is also an implication for those who choose not to take part in remembering or who witness those who remember. Here, I will declare that I do not take part in any Remembrance Day events. I am non-militaristic in my outlook- even leaning towards pacifism. I do not seek to say that I am right here. I’m just declaring my own stance in the context of what I am arguing for. So, I am one who witnesses remembering. What is the implication for me and others who do not take part in remembering events? Might there be an implication for us, in the spirit of ‘re-membering’ (bringing all people closer together as one body), to show generosity and understanding to those who do- even if this is very challenging for us and even if the remembering events are somewhat alien to our tradition, history and experience? Might there be an implication for us to get to know individuals who choose to remember? All too often, it seems, we know only a group from afar and not up close and personal with the individuals in the group.
For instance, I have been blessed to develop a deep friendship with two people who do choose to remember and this has changed my life. I have not had to give up any dear held beliefs (although I choose now to hold some of those beliefs more lightly and in a more relaxed way). I have not ‘lost’. In fact, I believe I have gained immeasurably by this coming together with these two great people. I believe our simple friendship may be an act of ‘re-membering’- of bringing people together into one body once again. It certainly has felt like that for me and I am thankful.
So, as we go into these days of remembering or commemorating and choosing not to remember or commemorate, I wonder can we do so with a spirit of ‘re-membering’. I pray that one day we all will be one body once again- up close and personal.