Persistence of Memory

"He could no longer be certain whether he was a man dreaming he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was a man."

"He could no longer be certain whether he was a man dreaming he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was a man."

There’s an old Chinese Zen story about a young woman who is torn between her childhood love and her father’s wish for her to marry another man. In the middle of the night she and her lover steal away on a boat; they settle down far away and raise a family. But eventually she begins to miss her father, and finally she returns to pay him a visit. He’s stunned when she shows up claiming to have been gone for years. Her father takes her into her old room, where she discovers what appears to be herself lying in bed, pale and barely alive. Her father tells her that she’s been lying here ever since that night she thought she ran away, in this state of convalescence. As the healthy woman nears the bed, the two simulacrums suddenly merge into one. The story ends with an enigmatic koan: Which was truly her?

In a less dramatic way, this dilemma is the secret truth of our lives. We rely on memory and experience to tell us who and what we are, but we can never be certain that we have remembered or experienced things as they really happened. When the accounts of others differ from ours, the problem deepens. Which, then, is true: the memory or the event as it actually unfolded? Can we ever be sure which is which?

One night, during a college break, I came home to find my mother with a worried look on her face. There’d been another bus-bombing in Israel with many casualties. Such events always captured the news in my hometown, which has an unusually high number of Jewish residents. My mother told me that they’d read a list of the victims, and she thought my Israeli girlfriend from high school was one of them. I was stunned; I felt an aching grief that someone whom I had loved, a beautiful and intelligent young person, had been snuffed out so suddenly. Things that had always been remote — Hammas, terrorism, the PLO — immediately became things of great relevance and familiarity, and ever after I felt a certain kinship with others who had lost someone to terrorist violence.

Earlier this year, I realized that I could find reports of the incident online, and though years have passed, I decided to see if there were details that I hadn’t received from my mother’s vague description. I pulled up the list of victims, and experienced yet another shock — my old girlfriend was not among them. There was someone with the same first name, but the last name was different. Had my mother been wrong? There was no way to know. By the time of the attack my ex-girlfriend could have married and changed her name, or the victim on the bus could’ve been someone entirely different.

With this ambiguous new knowledge, I entered an unexpected limbo — no longer could I claim for sure that someone I knew had died. How then to continue? Can we mourn for those who are not dead? More to the point, can we be allowed to? I no longer fit neatly into the categories of “survivor” or “unaffected bystander.” I did not feel comfortable grouping myself with those who were certain of having lost a friend, a son, a wife. Yet I could not deny that I had gone through a process of loss and sorrow, and the uncertainty that followed — was it her? was it someone else? — offered no solutions.

Fifteen months after 9/11, three people who have been listed for all this time as dead were discovered to still be alive and well, out of touch for various reasons and thus unaware that they were presumed deceased. In a situation such as this, how do we see the family and friends who have grieved and struggled to go on? Can they still attend survivor groups, speak publicly about the trauma of loss, continue with their therapy? Do we still see them as heroes and role models, strong in the face of tragedy and destruction? Should they give back the money and aid they received? Where do they fall on the spectrum of victims and the unaffected? And as the numbers of people killed last September are chipped away, from six thousand to three thousand to two-and-some-odd-number thousand, does the horror and tragedy of what happened to us lessen? Is there a point where we lose our right to feel victimized, to feel outraged?

Whether we know it or not, our whole lives are spent amongst such a minefield of unforeseen revelations. The things we feel most sure of can quickly be turned upside down. For twenty-six years I identified as a European-American — a mutt to be sure, but one of general Anglo-Saxon-Celtic heritage. Then my 96-year-old grandmother told me we had Cherokee ancestors I’d never heard of; other family-members are less sure. What does one do with such information? Am I still simply white? Was I ever? Do I have thousands of Native-American ancestors, or none? Am I who I thought I was? Such questions are more than whimsical. In these days of post-PC identity-politics, what we are or what we may be speaks to what we are entitled to, to what we have to answer for, to where we find ourselves in the American tapestry. Twenty percent of “white” Americans have African ancestors whom they are entirely ignorant of. How do we begin to categorize such people; how can we be sure of where to place ourselves? Is race a fact of biology, of heritage, of experience, of memory?

In the Bible, revelations are the ultimate source for truth — straight from God, they determine once and for all the shape of reality. But in real life, revelations often push us out of the known and into an interstitial space. Neither fully what we were nor entirely something new either, we become chimeric, unstable, and the past, even a painful one, can seem comfortably preferable to the nowhereness of being irresolvably in-between. Our culture has never been at ease with transgressions and things that can’t be squeezed into one category or another. Homophobia, the “one drop” rule for racial blackness, opposition to women in certain careers — religious and cultural conservatism pivots precisely on the attempt to differentiate categories and clearly (rigidly) demarcate boundaries. In the face of sloppy reality, such views seem naïve, even dangerous. Yet liberal post-modern constructions of identity and reality don’t necessarily offer us complete solutions either. Can comfort be taken from existentialism, or only a grim resignation to uncertainty and vulnerability? If the truth is always subject to doubt, what happens to the role of religion in our lives?

These musings do not tie together into some convenient, meaningful conclusion. Like memory, experience, and identity, they point beyond the knowable into a reality that is always being reexamined and renegotiated. In the end, we discover that our situation is similar to that of Chuang-Tzu, the Taoist sage in another ancient Chinese tale. One night, he had a happy dream that he was a butterfly. But when he awoke, he found that he could no longer be certain whether he was a man dreaming he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was a man.

So tell me now: What are you, really? Are you sure?

Jeff Wilson is an assistant professor of religious
studies and East Asian studies in Ontario. His most recent books include: Mourning the Unborn Dead: A Buddhist Ritual Comes to America (Oxford University Press 2009) and Buddhism of the Heart: Reflections on Shin Buddhism and Inner Togetherness (Wisdom Publications 2009). His next book, with University of North Carolina Press, will examine Buddhism in the American South.