The Problem of Memory


Memory is a complicated thing. It has the power to inspire us and to paralyze us. Billy Cundiff has to deal with the memory of his failed field goal attempt to tie the Ravens’ playoff bid for the Super Bowl. What he does with that memory will make all the difference in his future performance.

We all have the problem of memory in some way. The bad things like failures, mistreatments and accidents stick in our minds and make it hard for us to face current experiences. The old experience is so entrenched in our minds that we can’t burst out of its construct and into a new experience. I see it with anxiety clients a lot. They remember a place or experience where they had a       panic attack and they cannot bear to face the same place or the same anxiety symptoms again. They are stuck in the past so their ability to embrace present experiences is stunted.

Interestingly, positive memories can have a similar paralyzing effect. An exquisite kiss, an exceptional performance, an intimate spiritual touch…..all of these wonderful things can trap us in the past with their enticing, iconic place in our minds. Present experiences are compared to the past ones and can never quite measure up. We get stuck in the past and our present is, once again, stunted. We aren’t open to the new things happening now because we remember too well the wonderful thing that happened before.

St. John of the Cross talks about the need for a “purification of memory” which can enable individuals to new openness to the present and fresh hope in the future. The process does not involve us forgetting the past, but rather, holding our past experiences without clinging to them or amplifying them. It also involves being able to properly mourn past experiences that harmed us and celebrate past experiences that were wonderful. The reality is that the present will never be exactly like the past and our ability to accept this reality will shape our ability to be fully awake and present to what is happening now.

Will we judge Billy Cundiff for the missed field goal, or for the way he handles holding its memory? What memories, positive or negative, hold you in the past and block your full experience of the present?

To read a wonderful article that inspired my thinking on this topic, follow this link to an article written by Constance Fitzgerald of the Baltimore Carmelites.


  1. Janice, I was wondering when you would draw some worthwhile lesson from last Sunday’s football game. In education, I learned of “retroactive inhibition”, when previous learning interferes with present leaning. I guess it is saying the same thiing when we can pray the Healing of Memories and ask Jesus, with whom there is no time, to take us back and heal the memories. In my experience as a Spiritual Director, I have found that much of people’s hurts and pains are traceable to hurtful memories which keep them in bonage and prevent inner freedom. And, for me, this can go beyond the the personal time of the person to the ancestry, so that is why I pray a Mass for Healing the Family Tree. Whether we make mistakes in football or any other area of life, we all need the Lord to heal our “whole life”. Fof that, we need both chronos and kairos.The latter is where it really all happens.

  2. Nice job Janice. I have thinking about that poor guy, on and off this week and hoping he will be able to move on.

    Keep up the good work.

  3. Memories are indeed powerful, and I think what you describe also embodies the “grudge.” For those of us who find it easy to hold a grudge, we might need to become aware of how we are letting those memories control our present. Recently I surprised myself by realizing that I needed to incorporate more recent positive experiences into my relationship with an acquaintance so that I could let go of my grudge and appreciate the present. Your words really resonate with my recent experience.

  4. Great thoughts Janice. Delaing with memories like these, is the source of many “conversations” which occur in my head, mostly in quiet moments like the minutes before sleep or early in the morning. I take solace in the words or others who have failed or struggled before me and find that giving voice to the fears which arise from the memories help me. Not hiding from them, but instead talking to others about them seems to at least dampen their intensity and give me some space to put them in proper perspective.

  5. Great job as usual Janice. I experienced the “paralysis” of memory this fall while trying to help my dad through his fourth divorce. I was amazed at how quickly I returned to the known pattern of retreat. Of course fatique did not help this, during a busy season. I am very thankful for grace from my dad, and partnership of my wife to carry me through this time.

  6. Great thoughts, everyone! I think everyone can relate to this topic in some way. Exactly HOW to work on the memories is often the focus of my work in counseling and spiritual direction and all of your ideas come into play in different ways. Healing prayer, acknowledging the balance in previous experiences and talking it out all have a place in doing the work.

  7. Janice, forgiveness is one of the strongest faith messages I have received. Your father’s sermons were one way in which this was reinforced. Among his many wisdoms was this, “If God forgives us, who are we to refuse to forgive ourselves?” Accepting forgiveness is a valuable component to living with our memories.
    I appreciate your gift of helping us to rethink/confront/share how we are living with our imperfection and possibility.

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