Harold Babcock's Sermons

May 26, 2013

Memory and Hope

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May 26, 2013 

“For if you find hope in the ground of history, you are united with the great prophets who were able to look into the depth of their times, who tried to escape it, because they could not stand the horror of their visions, and who yet had the strength to look to an even deeper level and there to discover hope.”
– Paul Tillich 

The purpose of a civic education, wrote Paul Gagnon [Why Study History?], “is to prepare people for bad times.”  Gagnon was responding to the question, posed by students and school committees alike, “why study history?”  His simple answer was a single word: judgment.  We study history so that we can exercise good judgment, especially during bad times.

One can see that this logic applies just as well in the personal realm as in the public.  A knowledge of history—whether private and personal, or communal and public—can help us to exercise good judgment in hard times.  Indeed, I believe that both kinds of knowledge are necessary.  Together they can make the difference between life and death.

It has always seemed to me that one of the most important purposes of religion is also “to prepare people for bad times.”  Traditional believers use “sacred” history—the history of God’s saving acts as found in the Bible—as a hedge against bad times.  God has acted before, God will act again: so the argument goes.  No matter how bad things seem today, they will get better, because God is a God of history.

Those of us who do not share that faith in the supernatural aspects of sacred history must look elsewhere for our saving history: to secular history, with its own heroes and heroines, perhaps; or to the history of our heterodox Unitarian Universalist religious tradition, with its emphasis on this world rather than on some other-worldly promise.

Beyond these histories—the sacred, whether orthodox or heterodox, and the secular—there is yet another place where we look for wisdom to sustain us through the bad times, and it is close at hand.  It is to our own, personal history: the journey not only of our own, individual lives, but that of our families and of the various communities of which our lives and their lives are, and have been, a part.

We underestimate the healing power of memory, both our own memories, and the memories of those with whom our lot is most closely cast in life.  In our own experience, which is unique and yet part of the collective experience of the human race, we have the resources to weather the bad times.  As Gagnon says of history in general, “tragedy, comedy, beauty, and paradox” are there.  I believe that memory can help us to overcome despair and to look to the future with hope.

There is a familiar story from the Buddhist tradition about the mother who was so broken by grief over the death of her child that she sought help from the Buddha, the Compassionate One.  The woman’s private grief, it seemed, was beyond healing, so that she was not even sure that she could go on living.  So the Buddha suggested that the woman go door to door until she found a house which suffering had never visited.

And you know what happened: there was no home which had not known suffering, either in the present or in remembered time.  The woman’s grief did not go away, of course, but her loneliness did.  She was able to continue living her life, and later others in her family and community sought her out for advice and counsel, for she, too, had become wise.

Without history we would have cause for despair.  Without memory—without history writ small—we are cut-off, adrift.  We cannot place ourselves in a proper context, whether of suffering or of joy.  Without memory we cannot have a proper sense either of our insignificance or of our importance.

It is hard to imagine where we can find purpose and meaning for life if we are cut off from our past.  Certainly, contemporary culture by itself cannot give us adequate purpose and meaning.  We are still participants in a story, but we can only locate ourselves within it if we know what has come before.  We may not know where we are going, but we can have a pretty good idea of where we have been, and thus of where we are.

My observation is that too many of us are unaware of where we have come from historically and culturally.  We know neither our own personal history nor the history of our people.  As a result, we do not know where we are heading.  The future is a blank.  Make this a societal problem rather than an individual one, and it’s a recipe for disaster: politically, religiously, culturally, and environmentally.

With no adequate vision for the future, we become mired in the present in a completely negative sense.  We live only for the pleasure or the moment, and have no resources to sustain us when tragedy strikes.  As the prophet Isaiah said, “Without a vision, the people perish.”  The evidences of this truth are all around us.

It is good to live in the present moment as long as we have given thought to what consequences it may hold for the future.  But I don’t think our patterns of conspicuous consumption are what the Buddhists have in mind when they advocate for living in the “here and now.”  Indeed, many of the things that we do for the pleasure of the moment actually keep us from appreciating the here and now, and endanger the future for all who shall come after us.

We live between the poles of the remembrance of things past and the hope for things to come.  In between, there is the present moment, the here and now.  Without the past, without history, without memory, it is hard to imagine how we can understand the present where we find ourselves.  Without memory, we are cut-off from meaning and purpose.  We cannot see where we are going or why we should go there.  The future is filled with foreboding, and we are become like children in a fairy tale, lost in the deep, dark forest without knowledge of where we have come from or where we are going.  The inevitable result is that we will be suckers for the first gingerbread house we happen upon.

That gingerbread house can take the form of a negative political ideology or of a fanatical religious philosophy.  Either way, if we are not careful it can end with our destruction.

To look with hope to the future, we must know from whence we have come.  We must have thought about what it means to come from that particular place and people, and to be where we now find ourselves.  It worries me that so many people are ignorant about history and literature, for history and literature are the bearers of information about who we are and about how we must act if we are to survive as individuals and as a community.  Such ignorance can leave a void for lies and falsehood to fill.

Knowledge of our roots will not protect us completely from taking wrong turns along the way, but it can keep us going and prevent us from getting stuck, which is the beginning of despair.  An adequate knowledge of history and memory; a healthy sense of who we are and where we have come from, and why we are on this particular path, can carry us beyond despair and move us toward a chosen goal.  The memory that other tragedies have been endured, other losses experienced, other problems overcome—even though at tremendous cost—this is saving knowledge.  It brings desperately needed hope.

My past is precious to me.  My memories are precious to me.  Not all of them are happy ones, but they are what sustains me during my bad times.  When I cannot see beyond what in Pilgrim’s Progress is aptly named “the Slough of Despond,” I can at least look backwards, along the path that brought me here.

That path has twists and turns, of course.  It is only in hindsight that it appears to have a direction at all.  But there are always lessons along the path.  And most important, there are people: some living, many dead.  There are some I never knew, but of whom I know.  I carry them all with me in memory.  They continue to guide me along my path.

From my place in the Slough of Despond, I might conclude that my situation is hopeless, and I that I cannot go on.  But as I look back over the path of my life, I realize that there has been tragedy and despair there before, and that it has been endured and overcome.

On Memorial Day—set aside originally for remembrance of the Union dead of the American Civil War—I like to recall that my great great uncle Sewell Bowden was killed at the Battle of Bull Run in 1861, and that his younger brother Frank died at the Battle of Gettysburg two years later as a result of wounds and an amputation.  Two brothers from one family, killed in the same war, almost exactly two years apart.  The tragedy of those deaths for their immediate family can hardly be imagined, how they would have tried to make meaning of the deaths of those two sons.

That private tragedy has long since been taken up into the collective experience of the whole American people.  Though they may well have seemed meaningless at the time, those deaths have meaning for us because they were part of an event which helped to shape, and continues to shape, our nation.  And those deaths also have meaning because all private grief, as the Buddha taught, is universal.

From our limited perspectives, our own lives may also at times seem devoid of meaning.  How do we keep from succumbing to that potential despair?

Through my parents and grandparents, I have been able to participate in a more recent past, one which I of course did not experience myself.  The lesson I have learned is that mine is not the first generation, and I am not the first person, to have experienced hardship and despair.  For me, this insight is a wonderful source of hope for the future.  People before me have endured and overcome.

Without such knowledge, I would be hopeless.  I doubt that I would be able to go on.  For like the bereaved woman with her private grief, I could not go on if I believed that I was the only one to have experienced such a loss.  But I know that I am not the first, and that knowledge helps to keep me going.

Knowledge of the past can remind us that there is also joy in life.  True, it cannot protect us from our sadness, of from a profound sense of grief for the shortcomings of the human race.  But joy is not necessarily the end we should seek, or the end we need.  Rather, what we should seek for is hope.  For there is no guarantee in the future, as countless persons in generations before ours have learned.

As long as we have hope borne of memory, we can move forward into that uncertain future, and perhaps even have a positive impact on the direction that that future may take.

I know that my life has been guided by the people I have known and the experiences I have had, and I believe that we can influence the course of history as long as we do not succumb to hopelessness and despair.  We may not get out of this alive, as one comedian has suggested, but even the dead have lessons to teach.

Life makes us no promises.  Our wars and our holocausts should assure us of that.  But as holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel reminds us, memory is a powerful tool.  We are the ones who must give the dead life; it is our sacred trust.  To remember is often painful, but to forget is to doom ourselves to a futureless present.  To forget opens the doors to tragedy and despair, but to remember is to have hope.  As an old hymn puts it, 

Standing in the living present,
Memory and hope between,
God, we would with deep thanksgiving
Praise thee more for things unseen.


 – The Rev. Harold E. Babcock

Reading: from The Shaking of the Foundations, by Paul Tillich


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