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From Memory to Imagination

From Memory to Imagination

©istock.com/lilly3

I retired at age 65 following a nineteen-year pastorate at a marvelous Missouri church. Following a semester as a guest lecturer at a Kentucky seminary, my wife and I went to Australia where we taught for five years at a unit of the Melbourne College of Divinity. I retired again in 2001, and have been living in a California retirement community with three hundred other persons whose lives have been committed to peace and justice. Once a month the dozen or so residents of our apartment building gather to bring each other up to speed on recent personal happenings. Being of similar advanced years, one of the common conditions has to do with our memories.

One of our number has begun to take careful notes, and when asked why, said that she seems to be approaching the age when memory might give way to imagination. We all understood her point. It is not that we tend to lie or even exaggerate, but that facts occasionally fade and conjecture takes over. A common experience in a fading memory is the loss of an ability to recall names. So you might hear a conversation that goes like this:

“Did you hear about whats-her-name's broken arm?
“No, who is that?”
“I don’t remember her name, but she has white hair.”
“But we all have white hair! Do you know where she lives?”
“I think It’s on whats-it’s-name street which is just a block north of here.”

The conversation goes on like that until somebody interrupts it by coming up with the forgotten name that we then all then remember — for a while.   

Politicians and preachers are among those who tend to let memory fade and be replaced by imagination. So the President can let the facts concerning the actual size of his inauguration crowd give way to his imagination, despite what the official photographs say. My guess is if I ever had an inauguration I would too. But then never rely on a preacher to estimate the size of the Sunday crowd.

Imagination — “I think it was about four hundred.”

Fact —  The actual count was ninety-seven.

I wonder if Billy whats-his-name ever let his imagination overcome the facts when estimating the number of converts in his crusades?

So perhaps our neighbor who decided to write everything down before facts dissolved and imagination took over, was on to something.

While gradual memory loss is not a humorous phenomenon, in my late 80s it is slowly becoming both frustrating and inconvenient. Once memory begins to fade, the chances are that it will get progressively weaker. The other day I was visiting a clergy colleague with whom I have worked for sixty years. He is now blind, could not recognize my voice and could not remember who I was until I began to describe some of the things we had done together. At that point, we were able to have a rich conversation, mainly about the good old days.

Memory loss is not a fault, and any attempt to make someone feel guilty because he/she cannot recall a name, borders on cruelty. As in the case of so many issues we the elderly face, patience and kindness-not guilt-inducing ridicule defines the acceptable response. For now, I may be short of being able to recall names, and like many of us, I may be on the irreversible path from fact to imagination. But given the state of today’s world, imagination may be a sweeter option.

My thanks goes to my neighbor Louilyn for coming up with the phrase.

Charles Bayer

Charles Bayer is a somewhat retired theological professor and congregational pastor. 

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