Remembering and Forgetting, Depression, and the Healing of Memories

Back when I was in seminary, I was introduced to what was then called the ministry of inner healing or the healing of memories. Numerous books were written on the subject, notably by Agnes Sanford, Francis MacNutt, Michael Scanlon, Dennis and Matthew Linn. I read them all. I was desperate for relief from my chronic depression. During this time I met Leanne Payne. She lived in Wisconsin, only a short drive away from the seminary. I corresponded with her and visited her once or twice at her home. She was a delightful, Spirit-filled woman. Her faith was genuine, warm, encouraging. She shared with me several stories about her work with Agnes Sanford. Leanne prayed for me. The prayer counselling session was gentle and compassionate; but the depression did not lift. During the early years of my priesthood, I prayed for the inner healing of others, according to the method I had been taught. As far as I know, my prayers did not prove particularly effective for them. I concluded that the Lord had not given me the charism of healing and began referring depressed parishioners to competent therapists and psychologists. My struggle with my own depression continued.

Eventually I entered into therapy with a young psychologist straight out of grad school. His name was John Gartner. I think of myself as one of his ur-clients. John has since gone on to build himself quite the successful practice. I am not surprised. He is an astute, intelligent, insightful man. My therapy with him was fruitful, challenging, painful, rewarding. I consider myself fortunate to have found him; actually, he found me. He came knocking on my door. He was just starting his practice and wanted to introduce himself to the pastors in the area. I was impressed. I later contacted him and began to see him on a regular basis. My diagnosis is dysthymia. That’s code 300.4 in the DSM-5. Those who suffer from this condition live in a state of constant depression, with occasional plummets into double depression. During this time my mood level improved significantly, and I achieved a real measure of emotional stability. My ministry flourished. Maybe that’s too strong a word, but it really was a creative and productive time. The parish grew. My preaching improved. We developed a network of small groups, which became the backbone of parochial life. We had our normal share of conflicts and crises, but we were a healthy, spiritually alive congregation—at least that is how I remember those days.

I was annoyed with John for the first two years of therapy. He would not shake hands with me. He explained this was how he had been trained. It was a way of setting apart the client-psychologist relationship, a kind of fasting. The explanation didn’t help. I was still annoyed, but eventually I came to appreciate the wisdom of this discipline. I would enter the office, sit down, and begin talking. If you’ve ever seen What About Bob? you might recall Bob Wiley’s first session with psychiatrist Dr Leo Marvin. It was sort’ve like that, well, sort’ve.

After five years I knew it was time to discontinue therapy. I shook John’s hand when our final session concluded. I was confident and hopeful. I eventually accepted a call to a parish in Charleston, South Carolina, and within two years I had fallen again into deep depression. It has been an ongoing battle ever since. I have been helped by different psychologists, as well as by different antidepressants. I have been on Cymbalta for five years now. Thanks in large measure to a less stressful retired life and the ongoing support and love of my wife, I have achieved a genuine level of stability and happiness. But I am still vulnerable. The black dog is always ready to pounce.

I thought about all of this last week while reading Stephen R. L. Clark’s book Plotinus: Myth, Metaphor, and Philosophical Practice. One of its chapters is devoted to “Remembering and Forgetting.” Why do we remember and forget, and how are these dual acts related to the life of virtue and ascent to the Good? Clark draws on both ancient and modern authorities. He quotes a passage from a book by Rick Hanson and Richard Mendius, Buddha’s Brain:

Much as your body is built from the foods you eat, your mind is built from the experiences you have. The flow of experience gradually sculpts your brain, thus shaping your mind. Some of the results can be explicitly recalled: This is what I did last summer; that is how I felt when I was in love. But most of the shaping of your mind remains forever unconscious. This is called implicit memory, and it includes your expectations, models of relationships, emotional tendencies, and general outlook. Implicit memory establishes the interior landscape of your mind—what it feels like to be you—based on the slowly accumulating residues of lived experience.

Clark comments:

Hanson draws on modern neuroscience and Buddhist theory to suggest how this interior landscape can be reshaped once we recognize that memories are not fixed objects but part of an ongoing story or a house that can be rebuilt—though some of our mental structures have been fashioned long before our births and may be difficult to reform. Similarly, Plotinus’s goal is not Remembrance but Forgetfulness, not because he was “ashamed to be in a body,” as Porphyry supposed, but because there were things better worth “remembering” than childhood fears or fancies, even than grown-up fears and fancies. It may sometimes be necessary to bring those unconscious memories to light, but only to deconstruct them. By concentrating on what he wished to remember, on the very poetic genius that creates those images, “the master of the house,” he could hope to cleanse the past—but also the future. Everyday life is conditioned by our hopes and memories: we must remember our mistakes in the hope of avoiding like mistakes, but the very memories remind us of the likeliest future, that we will mistake again. If we are ever to change, we must change the way we see things. We must repopulate our inner landscape. And the first step in that process is forgetting. (pp. 131-132)

Remembering and forgetting—even after all these years of prayer and counseling, I find that specific memories and mental patterns still control much of my life. They seem to be prayer- and therapy-resistant. I would change the way I see things, yet I do not. The disappointments, losses, and humiliations, failures and sins, wounds received and wounds inflicted, cry out for my constant attention. The old memories come alive in the middle of the night or when I am trying to relax or when I am meditating with the Jesus Prayer. I try to shift my attention—breathe in and breathe out, return to the words of the prayer. The memories may quiet for a spell. They bide their time, like a wolf patiently waiting for its prey to let down its guard. “It is rather difficult to forget unwanted memories at will,” comments Plotinus. The painful memories are charged with power and suffering. Yet they are not the only memories. I also have memories of great loves, wondrous beauties, transfiguring joys, memories of peace and wholeness. Some of them are only a day-old. They are my true life. Yet it is the former to which I too often attend.

Plotinus suggests that we need to be awakened to our true selves, i.e., the soul before its fall into embodiment. He thus distinguishes between two organs of imagination: that by which we remember our historical being and that by which we remember our eternal being. We have forgotten the latter. Our return to our deeper selves, as Clark explains, “means that we must shed the merely personal, accidental memories of our lives here” (p. 121). To be awakened, says Plotinus, is a way of forgetfulness but only if we remain awake:

It is as if people who slept through their life thought the things in their dreams were reliable and obvious, but, if someone woke them up, disbelieved in what they saw with their eyes open and went to sleep again.

It’s hard to see how Christians can adapt Plotinus’s view, dependent as it is on belief in reincarnation and return to the soul’s original disembodied state. But perhaps we might ask ourselves, Who is this self that dwells in the pain of the past? Is it me? Did everything happen as I remember? Do my memories really reflect who I was, who I am, who I will be? There is something quite mysterious, and disturbing, about memory. With each act of recollection, memory is changed, edited, altered, distorted; with each recollection, I change myself, for good or for ill. Memory is dynamic. It is not just a matter of calling up a video from the data bank. “Memory is never a precise duplicate of the original,” remarks Rosalind Carter; “instead, it is a continuing act of creation.” While reviewing an old scrapbook, Sally Mann discovered that her most vivid childhood reminiscence, a visit to a zoo in Bulgaria, was in fact based on a memory of seeing a photograph of the visit. This brought her a whole new perspective:

Whatever of my memories hadn’t crumbled into dust must surely by now have been altered by the passage of time. I tend to agree with the theory that if you want to keep a memory pristine, you must not call upon it too often, for each time it is revisited, you alter it irrevocably, remembering not the original impression left by experience but the last time you recalled it. With tiny differences creeping in at each cycle, the exercise of our memory does not bring us closer to the past but draws us farther away.

I had learned over time to meekly accept whatever betrayals memory pulled over on me, allowing my mind to polish its own beautiful lie. In distorting the information it’s supposed to be keeping safe, the brain, to its credit, will often bow to some instinctive aesthetic wisdom, imparting to our life’s events a coherence, logic, and symbolic elegance that’s not present or not so obvious in the improbable, disheveled sloppiness of what we’ve actually been through.

Over time the mind effects its own sort of memory-healing. Recollections of a parent who has injured us may soften. The pain of betrayal by one’s lover may become muted over the years. “Time heals all wounds,” as the saying goes. Yet the reverse may also be true. Torment, anger, guilt, and grief may in fact intensify with each remembrance of a person or event. The search for healing then becomes critical, lest we be overcome by our passions and brokenness.

Remembering and forgetting—both are essential to our daily living, both essential to our spiritual lives. We are persons with unique histories. We are constituted as selves by these histories as accessed by memory. Anyone who has watched an elderly parent disappear before their eyes through the destructive power of Ahlzheimer’s understands the tragedy of total amnesia. Without a remembered past, the person lacks coherent selfhood. There is only confusion. Yet perhaps our histories are open to a remembering that is also a redemptive forgetfulness and a forgetfulness that is also a redemptive remembering. I recall the words of the Apostle Paul: “For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (Col 3:3-4).

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15 Responses to Remembering and Forgetting, Depression, and the Healing of Memories

  1. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings.

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  2. Pingback: How Wide is your Spiritual Moat? – an holistic approach to emotional sobriety – PARTICIPATING in the DIVINE DANCE

  3. Iain Lovejoy says:

    If Christians are to be “awakened to our true selves” do we not locate that “true self” in the future, rather than the past: the eternal self we are going to be, rather than some past life we once were? (A distinction, though, if we are serious about his timelessness, not really recognised by God.)

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  4. Ixnika says:

    “It’s hard to see how Christians can adapt Plotinus’s view, dependent as it is on belief in reincarnation.” What is hard is for Christians to continue to reject reincarnation in the face of mounting research indicating its reality. Lots of “church” councils “anathematized” lots of things that didn’t fit neatly into accepted “dogma.” Fortunately church councils don’t define reality.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Ixnika, I imagine that if I were living in India or in 3rd century Greece, I might find the evidence for reincarnation (whatever it might be) compelling—different plausibility structures lead to different interpretations of data.

      As an Orthodox Christian I reject the reincarnation thesis because it conflicts with the fundamental grammar of the Christian faith, as given in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. The gospel declares a very different eschatological hope—the death of death and the transfiguration of the cosmos. At best, reincarnation simply does not fit; at worst it denies the good news of our deliverance by grace from the necessities of the world and our bondage to sin and death.

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      • Yep, that’s the problem with preconceptions, they get in the way of evidence. Recent research, especially that of Ian Stevenson, seems to indicate pretty convincingly that the phenomenon is real—and you don’t even need to be in 3rd century Greece or India! But as you note, you reject the thesis not because of the evidence, but because it doesn’t fit into your framework. Not to be critical, but that’s sort of the definition of fundamentalism.

        https://www.near-death.com/reincarnation/research/ian-stevenson.html

        https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/bering-in-mind/ian-stevensone28099s-case-for-the-afterlife-are-we-e28098skepticse28099-really-just-cynics/

        After a couple years at Holy Cross GOST, I started thinking about near-death experiences. As you note, the economy of salvation in that framework requires certain presuppositions, and there’s a wide swath of human experience—especially NDEs and the like—that the “plausibility structures” laid out by the early church fathers can’t account for.

        I don’t want to get into it here, but post-seminary I’ve deconstructed my faith and completely reconstructed it, based on a much broader range of evidence. I still consider myself a Christian, but my own “plausibility structures” are now robust and broad enough to accommodate the mounting evidence coming from a wide range of sources.

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        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          “Not to be critical, but that’s sort of the definition of fundamentalism.”

          Nobody but us fundamentalists here, Bradley. At some point we all come to principles and beliefs that we accept on faith. I’m a Christian and specifically an Orthodox Christian. I accept, indeed embrace, specific de fide dogmas, beliefs, and practices on the basis of the dogmatic authority of the Church. Apart from this dogmatic authority, there can be no such thing as divine revelation. As John Henry Newman observed: “A revelation is not given if there be no authority to decide what it is that is given.” That’s just the way it works.

          If you’re going to cite scientific evidence for the reincarnation thesis, then you need to play that game the whole way through. You just can’t cite a few interesting studies that principally rely on anecdotal testimony. All these studies need to be assessed by the wider scientific community. Alternative explanations and hypotheses need to be explored and tested. Until that happens, reincarnation is just a proposed theory. Anyone of course is free to believe it according to their personal and religious inclinations, but we shouldn’t pretend that it has been scientifically proven, not by a long shot. Right now it’s still up there with astral projection, telekinesis, and alien abductions. A skeptic might insist that the claim that Jesus rose from the dead on Easter morning be included in that list. I would argue otherwise, but I sympathize with the sentiment.

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          • ‘As John Henry Newman observed: “A revelation is not given if there be no authority to decide what it is that is given.”’ Who was, of course, Roman Catholic.

            You are right: dogmatic authority goes hand in hand with divine revelation. In fact, I would argue the phrases are semantically synonymous.

            Ultimately, however, each of us individually decides which dogmatic authority/divine revelation we select as truth. THAT’s just the way it works.

            When we come to that realization, we are free to make the determination for ourselves. Hence free will, predestination, etc.

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        • Chris says:

          Cliff notes: No credible, scientifically validated evidence was found in 30 years of research at Princeton University’s parapsychology lab. One might counter that there are no meaningful metrics for such studies, but you cannot lay claim to any scientific certitude regarding paranormal activity.

          I would offer that there is a some evidence for genetically inherited memories, in a manner of speaking, but nothing of the sort described in the article about Stevenson.

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  5. brian says:

    Father, as you know, I also am a lifelong sufferer of dysthymia — well, technically, I think it started with the advent of adolescence. Your witness and insightful reflections reminded me of a scene from my ongoing novel in progress. I hope you will indulge me if I place it here, without context. I believe the images and brief dialogue are consonant with your thoughts.

    From the terrace they listened to the happy rhythms of the kezmer music. Benedicta called it Hasidic jazz. In the distance, Sky observed a young woman in a blue dress and a black short jacket with a white collar. Her raven hair had been swept up into gleaming plaits. She was carrying a tall earthen pot which tapered like a bottle. “Time,” said the Elder, “is like a serpent. In order to move forward, as we think of it, we retreat inwards, within memory and the story we tell ourselves. It is from within recollection which is also a kind of art that we spring forth.” Prince Raveh had joined them. He liked to listen in on that sort of talk. Sky was sitting on his left, a faraway expression on her face. “You’re looking a fine young lady,” averred the prince. Sky blushed at the compliment, for she understood that it was only recently that she had been universally acknowledged by the community as one of their own. The young woman with the pot was standing over a bare plot of land. Her eyes appeared closed, as if she were a somnambulist, her pretty lips a perfect little rose of peace. She tilted the pot, then, but to Sky’s surprise, a sprinkling of shooting lights and stars poured forth.
    “It seems to me that if we forget nothing, there is no art to memory.” She had spoken unknowingly, like the sleeping girl watering the earth with stella aqua. They all looked at her with surprise.
    “Yes,” said Benedicta. “It’s a kind of barbarism to forget nothing. Shame is a kind of tact that looks away.” This was not exactly what Sky had perhaps meant, if she meant anything by words culled more from deep feeling than explicit thought. Sky had unwittingly crossed a border into another time. She still did not understand it, but Benedicta had been there too, only older and in bewildering, dire circumstances. What is four in the morning, two at noon, three in the gloaming of dusk? This was the Sphinx’s riddle. The world of rationality devoid of imagination, univocal, solar, masculine, water not yet wine, sublunary, time as death spread out, death as time collapsed into a point. Oedipus thought that he had solved the riddle and escaped the judgement of the Sphinx. It was only later when he pronounced guilt on his own hubris by blinding himself. The riddle itself was doom. He did not escape.

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  6. charles figlio says:

    Father – you may want to read some of Caroline Leaf’s books on the neuroscience of rewiring your brain. Charles Figlio

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  7. For an interesting approach to memory, influenced by Platonism but also transformed by Christian sentiment (so that he disagrees with reincarnation and tries to show Platonism does not need it to be literal), one can look into Ficino, with this article going through some of his discussion on the issue: https://dash.harvard.edu/bitstream/handle/1/2961227/hankins_marsilioficino.pdf?sequence=4 (and, beyond his Platonic Theology, his Commentary on Plotinus takes considerable time to address this problem). OF course, there is a reworking going on — and one which I think is open to a more “Eastern” approach because of what Ficino considers remembering and forgetting to be about.

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  8. I love the sheer humanity in this post – and also the mystery. What, indeed, does it mean to remember? How does the mind go about creating our connections of meaning and purpose when we are not even aware of it? Who is this “I” that somehow stands back and processes, evaluates, and connects to all the passing phenomenon in the mind – in “front” of it? How can there be distinction in my “I”? What am I distinct from – myself? If no, then my thoughts, feelings, acts of will? Yet if I am not these things, what is left of me to call me? What am I other than thoughts, feelings, acts of will? Does the physical organ of the brain simply produce the illusion of a unified conscious “experiencer” from moment to moment? Am “I” nothing more than the concoction of atoms swirling about the vacuum, vomiting up a make believe character? I hope it is not true. The only comfort would be, if it were, eventually I would dissolve into the elements and this conscious phenomenon, the grandest trick imaginable, would cease to torment me with its golden but hallowed out illusion. And yet at the same time it would be the coward’s way to give the upper hand to a negative pessimism that could never be proven to be true. Hope springs eternal. We must just be strong enough to keep our gaze fixed on its budding.

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  9. Fr. Kimel, thank you for your candor. Suffering through depression is a difficult burden to bear. I’m manic depressive, so I range from near-psychotic highs (fortunately only twice in my adult life) to crushing lows. For whatever reason my seasonal cycle usually lands me in sustained depression during the summer months. This post, as well as the link to your post on Acedia (I think it was on Facebook) have been providentially timely.

    One thought comes to mind on memory – in the Hebrew word for remember, zeker. Memory to the Israelite was not simply recollection, it was an actualization of the past in the present. Much of the Temple cult and Hebrew calendar functioned to actualize specific acts of God on behalf of his people (e.g. Passover). A particularly helpful tool for me when dealing with painful memories is to ask myself, “Where was God when x happened?” I can’t say I always do this, and when I fight through depression I am prone to despair over deep regrets from the past. But, when I call the past into memory as I actively seek God’s presence, I see grace, mercy, that abounded to me in spite of terrible confusion and pain. There are certain hurts that we carry in life that never fully heal, however, they too can be a window into the superabundance of God’s love.

    That said, I do wonder how the forgetfulness comes into play – Paul says he forgets what lay behind him. These verses in Philippians have always been mysterious to me. I’m not exactly sure what forgetting meant for Paul. I don’t get the sense that Paul is suppressing his past (after all he discusses it just a few verses earlier in Phil. 3), but there is something, perhaps disregard, that I sense when I read it. Perhaps Paul, like Clark notes of Plotinus, in forgetting his past, is embracing his true self.

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