I recently re-watched Christopher Nolan’s brilliant film Memento. Guy Pearce simply kills it. And the storyline and story-telling are to-die-for. There’s just so much going on at so many levels in this movie, all at the same time–and (if you haven’t seen it) half the film happens in reverse (chronologically).
At the risk of spoiling it, I want to comment on two of the more obvious aspects of this film.
First, as most reviewers note, this is a film that ever so subtly–and, therefore, plausibly–portrays the inescapable human capacity for self-deception.
Often when we think of the idea of deception, we think of deliberate, conscious and pre-calculated distortion of the truth. And, of course, deception can be that. But deception can operate in ways that are far more subtle than that.
And such is the case with self-deception.
Let me give an example from my childhood–one that I (as a parent) have seen “replayed” by my own kids.
As a kid I can remember on numerous occasions my mother asking me if I had completed a specific task X–e.g., vacuuming out the car, mowing the lawn, etc. In response I would suddenly say to myself, “Oh no! That’s right, she had asked me to do that, and I haven’t done it yet–I completely forgot, and now she’s going to be upset with me!”
So I would say in a discouraged, defeated–and, I would add, deceptive–way, “Oh, Mom, I’m so sorry, I forgot about that. I’ll do it right now!”
I can remember my mom having conversations with my dad about this: should they punish me or not? Does my forgetting release me from any responsibility? They believed–and were right to believe- that I was not deliberately deceiving them: I had in fact forgotten to do what my mom had asked me to do. And, to complicate matters even further, it would be one thing if I had “forgotten” a task that I do daily (e.g., one of the morning chores), but what about a one-off task that my mom had happened to mention to me on the way out the door to school in the morning? (“Honey, when you get home, I won’t be here, so start the sprinkler in the backyard!”)
Memory is, of course, much more than a cognitive recollection of data. It is far less like re-opening a file on your laptop than one might at first think. Among (many) other things, memory involves our values and allegiances: we remember things if (or to whatever extent) we find them important: to borrow from Memento, I don’t recall the license plates of any cars that I followed on the way to the office today, though if I thought one of the drivers killed my wife, I suspect my memory would be better.
To return to the example from my childhood. In truth, I did not really want to remember the tasks that my mom gave me to do, because, well, they weren’t important to me. Forgetting was actually very convenient: it–I hoped–would nullify–or at least qualify–any responsibility I had for not fulfilling the task; I hadn’t really disobeyed, right?
But, of course, I had (at least in my case). Why? Because my forgetting was ever so telling–just as telling as my remembering. Not surprisingly there were some things, as a kid, that I never forgot–e.g., to ask my mom for my weekly allowance or to tattle on my siblings when they had wronged me earlier in the day–or week or month.
And such “forgetting” is one very real way that we deceive ourselves: there are certain things we would prefer to forget–and do. And there are certain things we absolutely remember (or think we do). Fascinatingly, in Momento there is a juxtaposition of the protagonist’s overt amnesia–his inability to create new memories (due to a head injury), and his far more covert…well, you’ll have to watch the film.
Because the film’s protagonist is himself aware of his amnesia, he tries to remind himself of important evidence (concerning his wife’s murder): he writes notes to himself, ‘tattoos’ himself, etc. Importantly, at some level we are all aware that we don’t remember everything, and so we set reminders for important things.
And that begs the question: which things are important to us? Listen to Proverbs, where a father instructs his son:
“My son,…guard my teachings as the apple of your eye.
Bind them on your fingers;
write them on the tablet of your heart…
They will keep you from the adulterous woman…”
Similarly, in Deuteronomy we read:
“These commandments I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them upon your children…. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads…. Be careful that you do not forget the LORD….”
Proverbs and Deuteronomy call God’s people to be acutely self-aware amnesiacs who seek out regular exposure to the external insight and instruction of Scripture, which can then be internalized through memorization and meditation: “write them on the tablet of your heart.”
So consider the following two questions:
Which is more real to you at this moment–your feelings about X, OR what Jesus says about X?
Which is more reliable for you at this moment–your feelings about X, OR what Jesus says about X?
The reality is that our feelings–including our thoughts, arguments, etc.–are indeed real but must be redeemed by the far greater reality of God’s Word.
So many of the thoughts in my head and heart are a confusing confluence of my own immediate desires and my culture’s immediate cacophony of voices. To live by them is to live by what is inevitably passing: by the next day my desires will have changed; and by the next decade my culture’s voices will have as well. Why will they have changed?
OR I can live by Scriptures that have been followed for over tw0 millennia and are followed today by an astonishingly diverse two-billion-plus people. I can live by Scriptures that are revered as sacred wisdom–i.e., as giving me access to how the created order really works and where it’s really going.
Hear Jesus’ inestimably arrogant claim:
“Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.”
Now, a second, much briefer observation about Momento. Critics regularly noted the theme of self-deception in the film, but–at least from the mere eight reviews I read–they didn’t notice the theme of isolation.
The protagonist is overwhelmingly all alone–painfully so. Yes, characters come and go; yes, others are–at least, it seems–trying to help. But get this: he has no community. He is on a mission all by himself. And this raises the crucial question:
Is self-reminder enough?
If we are not to be lost in self-deception, is self-reminder–i.e., Scripture memory–crucial? Absolutely. But is such self-reminder sufficient?
In addition to Scripture memory, I need community memory–community present and community past.
Consider Hebrews. Having repeatedly shown the crucial role of present Christian community for perseverance, it is only after recounting an entire chapter of those who walked by faith in the past that the author of Hebrews then gives what is arguably the letter’s central exhortation:
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.”
This is huge: we are empowered to deal radically with even the most entangling and enticing of sins when we are surrounded by witnesses.
The author then sets before us his star witness–Jesus himself, “the pioneer and perfecter of faith” who utterly ignored the passing voices of his culture (“Crucify him!”), scorning their shame, and then, once vindicated, sitting at the Father’s right hand.
Interestingly, the author then chides his listeners for having “completely forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as a father addresses his son”–and he quotes from…Proverbs (!):
“My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline,
and do not lose heart when he rebukes you,
for the Lord disciplines those he loves,
and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.”
How do we escape the amnesia of self-deception? By memory. And community. By uniting our hearts both to the counsel of Jesus and the community of Jesus.
What will you forget? Will you be alone when you do? And what will be the cost?