I was surprised to find, once upon a time, that someone was made very uneasy by my remembering her name a year after I had met her briefly.  At that time I used to remember everyone’s name, and told her so when I saw her unease, but it didn't help at all. Perhaps she thought I had spent the year thinking about her.  But she probably felt, like any normal person, that most things and experiences should be allowed to pass away. 

“I have a terrible memory,” someone said, “I remember everything!”  For survival we have to forget a great many things.  And we usually do.   But sometimes we cling to memories as if there were no life for us in the present.  Thank God our survival doesn't depend on what we can salvage from the past.... Friend, why not enjoy an easy and voluminous forgetfulness!  (Since that time, I have done so myself.)  Be magnanimous and grant an amnesty (which is related to the word amnesia) to everything and everyone in your entire past!  That ought to shake out a lot of dust.  Then what is left is the bare human essentials.

Don't worry about appointments, meetings, schedules, and the rest.  There is plenty of electronic gadgetry for reminding you of them.  There is a great deal of stuff that we no longer need to carry around in our heads; by using electronic memory we make ourselves free for more essential human things.  Perhaps the computer is now doing for human knowledge what the camera did for painting: setting it free from the burden of replication, and consequently setting us free of a great deal of donkey-work, free to be inventive, lighter on our feet: free, it may be, to go beyond ourselves and our barns not big enough for all we have to remember. 

What am I anyway?  Am I that accumulation of memories, that baggage?  Am I trying to hold together some idea of my own identity, and regarding that as my resource, my source?  But there is a difficulty so vast as to be almost invisible: the whole thing is past and gone, no longer real; it is a bucket of ashes.

We have a past, of course, as we have a body.  Or more correctly we are a past and we are a body.  When the body is treated properly it doesn't obtrude itself; when you practise yoga, for example, you reach a point of such equilibrium that you might almost believe your body didn't exist; the purpose of yoga is to lead you to meditation, which is a full alertness in the whole being – body and soul – not a flight from the body and not a cultivation of the body.  There is a similar right way to regard the past.  We have to take proper care of it if it is not to become a burden, like a body vitiated by years of excessive eating and drinking and slouching around.  We take care of the past by loving it and laying each part of it to rest.  When we treat our past properly it feels weightless, like a fit body; it delivers us into the present and allows us to spring lightly into the future. 

In an historical sense the past is my source, but if I look to the past as my source I will find only the ego, the encrusted self, the shell with no life in it.  My working source (let’s call it that), is the present, not the past.  Yesterday’s ‘I’ may seem as real as today’s, or more real, but in reality there is only today’s ‘I’.  Grammar enables me to separate nouns from verbs, and this opens a chasm between the ‘I’ and what the ‘I’ is doing; I can say, ‘I did that yesterday,’ or ‘I will do it tomorrow,’ and this gives the impression that the ‘I’ is somehow above time.  I have to learn, somehow, to look at everything directly, without the distortions of the ego and its grammar; my existence as a human being depends on this.  The past has the appearance of permanent reality: that is why we are so gravely tempted to find our whole meaning in it.  But it is a mistake to look for the living among the dead. 

If I think of my past as my source, my resource, I will direct all my efforts to protecting and defending it, and I will be forever saving and sparing myself like money; I will think of my deepest self as a little hard perduring centre, a sort of billiard ball; I will not know how to give myself away, I will never know the beauty of emptiness.  How beautiful to have nothing to defend!  Only then can I really give.  The ego’s giving is a pretence, a cover for buying and selling.  It is a black hole in inner space, it pulls everything into itself: not even light can escape, still less love.  We really give only when we give for no reason; it is our true nature to do so.  There is a watered-down version of this, “the more you give the more you receive,” but it is so dangerously close to buying and selling that it is better not to meddle with it.  Just give for no reason at all. 

To give oneself means, in practice, to give one’s time, one’s attention.  My time is not a commodity that I possess; it is another name for me.  If I give an hour of my time to someone, with full attention, I have given an hour of myself, or rather I have given myself fully, for an hour.  I can give myself away at every moment: if I am doing my work, or looking at a tree, or just walking, I can give myself fully to it, I can stop being a billiard ball and give myself away completely. 

To give “for love” is just to give, and the rest is buying and selling.  In giving for no reason at all we begin to resemble in some way our Father in heaven who makes the sun to rise on good and bad alike. 

Donagh O'Shea

These are brief articles, one per month,
on a wide variety of topics concerning the living of the Christian life.