“…memory is our only true access to reality.”
― Blake Crouch, Recursion
Can we stop our sinful patterns if we erase our memories? Two different storylines wrestle with this very question. The first is Veronica Roth’s Divergent series concerning a hated character named Peter. The second is a sci-fi series on Netflix called Dark Matter. In both situations, characters are changed as a result of having their memories altered.
In the Divergent series, Peter emerges as a clear antagonist. He actively opposes the main character, Tris, and is well-known for his devious and violent ways. He is clever though and is usually able to get himself in positions of safety. When Tris tries to stop the simulation that has Dauntless members killing the members of the Abnegation members and finds Peter, he makes a deal with Tris in order to save his own life. After her mission is accomplished, she brings Peter with her at his request, saving his life. Later, he repays the favor by faking her death and rescuing her. This seems to be a change of character for him–saving lives instead of taking them. However, in Allegiant, we find that he feels morally defeated. When he learns about a memory eraser, he tries to steal it. In a candid conversation with Tobias, he explains why.
“You know why you won fights as an initiate?” I [Tobias] say as I get to my feet. “Because you’re cruel. Because you like to hurt people. And you think you’re special, you think everyone around you is a bunch of sissies who can’t make the tough choices like you can.”
He [Peter] starts to get up, and I kick him in the side so he goes sprawling again. Then I press my foot to his chest, right under his throat, and our eyes meet, his wide and innocent and nothing like what’s inside him.
“You are not special,” I say. “I like to hurt people too. I can make the cruelest choice. The difference is, sometimes I don’t, and you always do, and that makes you evil.”
“That’s why I want it,” Peter says, his voice shaking.
I stop. I don’t turn around. I don’t want to see his face right now.
“I want the serum because I’m sick of being this way,” he says. “I’m sick of doing bad things and liking it and then wondering what’s wrong with me. I want it to be over. I want to start again.”
In the book, he finally does get the serum, and while he isn’t perfect and has cruel tendencies, he is not as evil as he was previously.
A Mystery to Reveal
This idea is also the main storyline behind Netflix’s 2015 series Dark Matter. In this sci-fi thriller, a crew awakens on their ship with all of their memories wiped. Part of the mystery is figuring out why their memories are wiped but a more pressing need is to find out who they are. What they discover is shocking. Over the days and weeks while they are trying to figure out their identities, they see themselves as good guys. Discovering their pasts reveals that they are mostly petty (and often violent) criminals. When given the opportunity to get their old memories, all but one refuses them. The one who does turns into the group’s enemy. The rest try to continue to be the kind of people they had thought they were–good people who fight for the weak. They don’t ever feel fully successful, but they are committed to trying.
Could changing our memories change who we are? In the two stories mentioned, it isn’t completely successful, but it does help. For us, there aren’t any memory-erasing serums or programs. When we are caught in destructive patterns, we might wish we could start over. We’d change the decisions we’ve made or erase the hurts that keep us bound. We can’t do that literally. However, maybe we can do it figuratively.
Rewriting the Past
As a writer, I have recently begun to dabble in memoir writing. I have a bit of a chaotic childhood, so I haven’t really wanted to delve into those stories for my own sake and to avoid the shock factor. A counselor revealed to me that many things that I thought were part of my personality were actually my coping mechanisms, my way of dealing with the trauma of my past. When I started writing about my past, it helped me see the themes of my own life. The refrains that keep playing in the background that affect me even now.
Though writing does not free me from the effects of my memories, writing allows me to reframe them. By discussing the key moments of my childhood and pulling out the fearful messages, I have been able to speak truth to the deepest lies of my heart. My memories are not erased, but they are transformed.
The Power of the Gospel
This is the power of the Gospel in our lives, if we allow it. 2 Corinthians 5:17 states, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” When we become believers, though, we don’t forget our past. It still controls us in many ways. So how does this become true? It’s true as we preach it to ourselves–past and present.
I know not all like to write as I do, so this process will look different for others. For some, they can open their memories by sharing with someone trusted who can help pull out the recurring issues. This can be a therapist, but it can also be a friend. Others find it through creative acts like painting, creating, or music. These talents are access points by which we can tap into our emotions, giving us the space we need to process them and also renew them.
When we accept the life-transforming message of the Gospel, we forget we have a part to play in appropriating it into our lives. In reality, all the work is done by Christ. In our hearts, however, we have to do the hard work of helping ourselves believe it. We have to go back to our hardest memories, those moments when we decided life truths, and speak the Gospel to them. It is only when we do this that our memories become reality, and we can be truly changed. It is not a one-time event, either. This is the journey of our lives. And, unlike Peter and the characters of Dark Matter, we aren’t alone in our transforming work. We have the hope of the Gospel and the power of the Holy Spirit working within us to make us more than conquerors (Romans 8:37).