Lockdown Revisited: The healing power of memory

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Looking back on 2020 allows us insight into the post COVID-19 world.

Two years ago, we were in the midst of 14 days to flatten the curve, when toilet paper was scarce and time was ample. We discovered the joy of private chat on Zoom, and the subsequent horror of accidentally sending those messages to the entire class. 

We loved our sourdough starters, Catan and the ability to watch all six Hobbit and Lord of the Rings movies on March 25. 

But it has also been two years since my family huddled around our computer screen as Pope Francis stood alone in the rain, blessing an isolated, terrified world.

There is so much that would be different if those months had never taken place. Not only did COVID-19 take so many lives, but so many minds and souls were shattered by the events of 2020. 

It almost seems silly to dwell on those months in isolation. The world hasn’t exactly gotten better. But the reality is that the lockdown happened and therefore we should remember it.

Memory is an art that is a unique gift from our Creator. It distinguishes us from other animals and allows us to transcend time. This beautiful power should not be treated lightly, but should be accepted as an instrument by which we come to a deeper knowledge of ourselves, our neighbors and divine love. 

Because memory is an art, it can be performed badly. It is possible to remember in a way that brings destruction rather than harmony. 

How many of us have wasted time wallowing in painful experiences, rather than thanking God for the goodness He lavishes in the present moment? On a psychological level, it can be harmful to engage with excruciating memories that we’re not ready to face.

But when used properly, memory has a healing power. This is celebrated throughout Western literature. 

Odysseus can only reckon with his past grief and failure through retelling his wanderings to the Phaiakians. Similarly, Charles Ryder of “Brideshead Revisited” can only smile after his re-encounter with Brideshead forces him to look at his past in all its unadulterated beauty and sorrow.

Dante the Poet enters into the horrific memory of the dark wood because it is only in looking at the past that he can “retell the good discovered there.” In Willa Cather’s “My Antonia,” Jim can only make sense of his present joy and heartache in light of “the precious, the incommunicable past.”

There is much of that incommunicable past that I wish had never happened. But as I ask the Lord to walk with me into the dark wood, He recounts precious lessons that I don’t want to forget.

I wish that I didn’t remember the torture of every livestream Mass. But I don’t want to forget the way that my life made no sense without the Eucharist.

I wish that I didn’t remember the crippling loneliness that would take over every time I clicked “Leave meeting” on Zoom. But I don’t want to forget my promise to never take another hug, coffee date or in person class for granted.

I wish that the day had never come when my governor announced that schools would not reopen for the rest of my last semester in high school. But I don’t want to forget the first dandelions that sprang up that day and were an emblem of hope to me and my friends.

As the fun family cynic since kindergarten, it has taken a long time to unlearn the pessimistic, distrustful mental habits that 2020 exacerbated. But there is so much that I learned and must recall to the Phaiakians.

I learned to run to my church parking lot, where I could see Jesus in the tabernacle behind the church window. I learned about Christ’s fidelity that kept him there behind locked doors, even though I had nothing to offer in return.

I learned the incomparable joy of that first Eucharist after months away from Him. I learned the wild gift of throwing my arms around my best friends after months apart. I learned that our Lord makes all things new in ways that are indescribably beautiful and creative.

When I sit in Phaiakia and look at the wounds that are still unhealed, I remember those nights before the tabernacle as I prayed C.S. Lewis’ words from “Till We Have Faces”:

“I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer. Before your face questions die away.”

As I recall Spring 2020, I recall His face.

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