Just the other night I was doing something that all middle-aged university professors do on a regular basis — maintaining my Facebook! Yes, I have a presence on Facebook and, yes, on occasion I visit the site to see what all of my “friends” are doing. I originally created my Facebook presence simply because my colleague and fellow blogger Matt Jenson said that I should. I thought that these were just the ramblings of a younger, unmarried man with too much time on his hands. (No offense, Matt!) But he convinced me that it would be a good way to connect with my Torrey students, so I jumped right in. As it turns out, he was right—it is a good way to keep up with my students, both present and past. It’s convenient and, in some ways, more enjoyable than e-mail, for on Facebook I can at least look at a person’s profile picture or see what they’re up to when I write on their Wall. Whereas with e-mail, I am simply staring at a white page with black letters. I have come to think that Facebook is “cool.”
Yet, my group of friends on Facebook has moved beyond my students in ways that I did not expect. For example, in the past couple of months I have been “friended” by old high school chums. It all started when someone from the Amherst County High School class of ’89 found me on Facebook and we became friends. She then proceeded to find others. Facebook did the rest of the work with its wonderful feature of “So-and-so and So-and-so are now friends. Perhaps you also know So-and-so.” Well, guess what? I did know So-and-so and we’re now friends too! Before I knew it I was reconnected with quite a few former schoolmates. One problem, however. I started getting requests from people who I apparently went to high school with but I can’t remember them at all. They seem to remember me just fine but for the life of me I can’t recall them. Now, in my defense, some of them have married and changed their names so I do not immediately recognize their married names. Yet, some of them, when inviting me to be their friend, have reminded me of their maiden name. Unfortunately, I still do not remember all of them. This has got me thinking.
Why don’t I remember these people that I spent at least four years with during the late 1980s? Actually, some I have known a lot longer since we also went to elementary and even middle school together. Where is my memory of these people? Why do they seem to remember me with such clarity while I scramble even to recall who they are? My wife and I have a bit of a joke of why I don’t remember things from that far back or even some of the earliest events of our own married life—it was pushed out of my brain during graduate school. She thinks that all of the reading in the past dozen years or so has actually displaced my personal memories. My reading and internalizing of Bernard of Clairvaux’s theology, for example, required that I dump the memory of our first date. Reading Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae has necessitated dumping an entire year of high school, so she suggests. As amusing at it sounds, I sometimes wonder if it’s not true! Perhaps I simply want to remember Bernard and Aquinas more than I want to remember what I did from September to December 1987. But seriously, why is remembering these people so difficult?
I take comfort in knowing that I am not the first person to have a memory problem and I’m not talking about those with dementia or other serious memory conditions. Actually, I am reminded of the Israelites. In some ways the story of the Old Testament is a simple one: (1) God chooses people and makes them into a great nation; (2) God asks them to remember who made them and who sustains them; (3) the people forget God and attempt to walk tall on their own; (4) God reminds them again not to forget him; (5) they forget; (6) God reminds; (7) they forget; (8) God reminds and on and on until God himself comes in the flesh. In several instances God even says, and I’m paraphrasing, “Why don’t you pile up a bunch of stones here. That way, every time you walk by them you will be reminded of all the great things that I’ve done for you.” The people say, “Great idea!” They pile up the stones. Some number of years later a group walks by the pile of stones and asks, “What are these?” The collective response: “Who knows!” God is forgotten. Now, like those stones, I bought expensive yearbooks when I was in high school to always remember those unforgettable years. The logical thing to do when someone who claims that I went to high school with them contacts me via Facebook and I can’t remember who they are would be to get those yearbooks out and look them up. But the yearbooks are in a trunk, under a bunch of stuff in the garage. Getting them out would be a lot of work. So… I simply befriend them and act like I know exactly who they are. So far it’s working.
But again, this doesn’t solve the fact that I, in fact, do not remember them. I want to, but the images and recollections are gone. In Books 10 and 11 of his Confessions, Augustine talks a lot about memory and time. For him the memory is a faculty that humans have in common with animals. Memory gives us a habitual power to connect the images in our minds with the corporeal things known through the senses. He writes, “When a true narrative of the past is related, the memory produces not the actual events which have passed away but words conceived from images of them, which they fixed like imprints as they passed through the senses” (Confessions xi.18.23). Further, our memories preserve many other things that we both see and hear, making possible art and culture. Memory is a good thing for Augustine, especially when employed in our knowing of God. Time, for this great thinker, is a very large topic, beyond the scope of this blog. At its most basic level, however, all time is always present, says Augustine. Basically, we live in the present at all times. Augustine, along with his Neoplatonic forebears, uses such provocative statements as the “simultaneity of eternity” and “time is simply a distension.” Yet ultimately Augustine confesses, “I still do not know what time is” (Confessions xi.25.32). I’m with him there!
My point is this. Quite a bit of “time” has passed since my high school graduation in 1989, even if then is now in some Augustinian sense. (Though the clothing and hairstyles from 1989 would suggest that the past is definitely not in the present!) Despite the fact that I spent a lot of time with many of these people that I am now re-friending on Facebook and their faces and words should have imprinted themselves on my mind, they apparently didn’t. I have forgotten who they are. Worse, I am concerned that I do not remember them because I have been excessively busy over the past nineteen years thinking too much about myself and not enough about others. I am confident that is not the case but I do need to be vigilant that I never let myself get in the way of caring for and being interested in others. I’m thankful that Facebook is bringing these people back into my life and not because I’m simply nostalgic for the great ’80s. Rather, I look forward to getting to know them again, perhaps even getting together should we find ourselves in the same place at the same time. This time around, I don’t want to forget them. If anyone from the Amherst County High School class of 1989 is reading, I apologize for forgetting you. Let’s start over again. I’m Greg Peters, will you be my Facebook friend?