A Lesson on Memory
Good afternoon to all of you. We’re so thankful to see you today. You’re a wonderful looking group, and we’ve heard some very flattering things about you as we’ve been walking around this building and getting acquainted with you, and acquainted with your campus.
I am grateful for the assignment that brings me here, and grateful for the privilege of becoming acquainted with you. I pray that the Spirit of the Lord will be with us and that the feelings and observations I express to you may be of benefit to you. I have earnestly sought the direction of the Lord with respect to these comments.
I’d like to congratulate you on enrolling here, and congratulate you on the foresight that you show in preparing yourself for the future that is out around the corner for you. You will always be grateful for all the education you can get. You will always be grateful for what you learn here. I hope to encourage you in that effort, but more than that, to encourage you with respect to other aspects of your life today. I will say by way of confession that I think sometimes the most pleasant thing that we could possibly do is to go back to college, to go back to school. It just sounds like delightful fun.
The November 2007 issue of the National Geographic magazine contains a fascinating article about memory. The article contrasts she lives of two unusual individuals whose names are never stated. One is referred to as AJ, and the other is called EP. They are both famous among scientists who study memory, but for diametrically different reasons. AJ remembers almost every day of her life from age nine to the present, and she remembers them perfectly. She remembers what happened on specific days 20 years ago, or 10 years ago. She can tell you what happened on a television show she watched many years ago. She says, “My memory flows like a movie—nonstop and uncontrollable.” She does not have the savant syndrome occasionally demonstrated by one with autism. She can’t memorize the phone book or long series of numbers; she just remembers her life perfectly, and she has since she was nine years old. We’ll return to AJ in a few minutes.
On the other hand, about 15 years ago as a result of an infection that destroyed part of his brain, EP lost his capacity to remember anything except for events that occurred at least 60 years ago. An 85-year-old man, he is happy, he’s friendly, he’s warm. But he has no memory whatsoever of anything that happened even a few minutes before. Every time you meet him, it’s the first time. After he finishes breakfast, cleans up, does the dishes and puts them away, he can’t remember if he’s had breakfast. He doesn’t know his neighbors. He can’t remember the headlines of the articles in the newspaper that he reads each morning. He reads the headlines, starts the article, and then re-reads the headline. He has no sense that there’s a gigantic hole in his memory. He is blissful but entirely unaware of anything except that which is happening right now before his eyes. And he has lingering memories of events that occurred six decades ago.
AJ and EP are unique. Because their conditions are so rare and so extraordinary, they have been studied constantly and carefully. There is much we can learn from thinking about them for a moment and analyzing their situations in comparison with our own.
You and I almost certainly have more normal memories. We likely cannot remember what we had for dinner on October 24, 2006, one year ago, or even one month ago, or even a week ago tonight. As time passes, our memory of common events, of the normal stuff of life, fades. We are not deluged with useless details about things that don’t matter much. Our memory of important events and people, like opening mission calls, marriages, family vacations, and so on, stays with us for years, but even these memories tend to fade quickly and with the passage of time we just remember images.
Still, we remember much more than does EP. We do know our neighbors, we don’t get lost if we leave our neighborhood to go to the store, we can read books and remember the plots and something about the characters and the stories. We remember breakfast conversations and can pick them up again at dinner. We know what year it is. We know who the president of the country is. EP doesn’t, and if he were told, he wouldn’t remember within a few moments.
I’d like to talk to you about memory. I’d like to talk to you about building memories. And I’d like to talk to you about the kinds of memories that matter most. In the eternal perspective, EP’s defective memory is just temporary. When he passes into the spirit world, his memory, to a great extent, will return. Eventually, all of his memory will be restored to him.
AJ’s memory is more consistent with what will be the condition of our memory, in the eternal world. We will remember everything. The scriptures teach us this as follows:
“O how great the plan of our God! For on the other hand, the paradise of God must deliver up the spirits of the righteous, and the grave deliver up the body of the righteous; and the spirit and the body is restored to itself again, and all men become incorruptible, and immortal, and they are living souls, having a perfect knowledge like unto us in the flesh, save it be that our knowledge shall be perfect.
“Wherefore, we shall have a perfect knowledge of all our guilt, and our uncleanness, and our nakedness; and the righteous shall have a perfect knowledge of their enjoyment, and their righteousness, being clothed with purity, yea, even with the robe of righteousness” (2 Nephi 9:13 - 14).
Similarly, we read: “Prepare your souls for that glorious day when justice shall be administered unto the righteous, even the day of judgment, that ye may not shrink with awful fear; that ye may not remember your awful guilt in perfectness, and be constrained to exclaim: Holy, holy are thy judgments, O Lord God Almighty—but I know my guilt; I transgressed thy law, and my transgressions are mine; and the devil hath obtained me, that I am a prey to his awful misery” (2 Nephi 9:46).
At the time of his conversion, Alma remembered and reviewed all of his sins and saw himself as he really was. When he recounted that experience to his son Helaman, he made clear that the experience was anything but a happy one. He said:
“I was racked with eternal torment, for my soul was harrowed up to the greatest degree and racked with all my sins.
“Yea, I did remember all my sins and iniquities, for which I was tormented with the pains of hell; yea, I saw that I had rebelled against my God, and that I had not kept his holy commandments.
“Yea, and I had murdered many of his children, or rather led them away unto destruction; yea, and in fine so great had been my iniquities, that the very thought of coming into the presence of my God did rack my soul with inexpressible horror.
“Oh, thought I, that I could be banished and become extinct both soul and body, that I might not be brought to stand in the presence of my God, to be judged of my deeds.
“And now, for three days and for three nights was I racked, even with the pains of a damned soul.
“And it came to pass that . . . as I was… racked with torment, [and] . . . I was harrowed up by the memory of my many sins,” (Alma 36:12 - 17)… and I won’t finish the story. You remember what happened then. That’s when he caught hold of the idea of the Savior.
We return now to AJ, the woman with the perfect memory. She makes an observation, or at least what is attributed to her in the National Geographic magazine article, that basically says that her perfect memory haunts her at times. This window into her world ought to give us pause, for it foreshadows the restoration of our own memories. She says, “I remember good, which is very comforting. But I also remember bad-and every bad choice. And I really don’t give myself a break. There are all these forks in the road, moments you have to make a choice, and then it’s ten years later, and I’m still beating myself up over them. I don’t forgive myself for a lot of things. Your memory is the way it is to protect you. I feel like it just hasn’t protected me” (November 2007, pg. 51).
I had a stake conference assignment in Menan, Idaho, a week and a half ago. The Menan Stake is located about 15 miles west of Rexburg, Idaho. Menan is farming country—it’s flat and fertile. It’s fall there, just like it is here—the leaves are changing, it’s cool at night. I was raised in Los Angeles, and have almost no understanding of what people do on a farm. I don’t know how to raise hay or grain or potatoes. I was fascinated to note that everywhere the farmers were plowing their fields in anticipation of winter. They had large and very expensive farming equipment. The farming equipment was plowing the ground and preparing it or the winter ahead. You don’t plow fields so they will do well in winter. You plow fields so that they’ll do well in the spring and in the summer and in next year’s harvest. You mix in fertilizers and aerate the soil so that it will be fertile when the seeds are planted as the growing season begins. By going to work now, the farmers increase the harvest next fall.
President Hinckley spoke to a very similar point in General Conference in 1993, in the priesthood session. He reflected upon his youth, saying, “We had a large orchard, and the trees had to be pruned each spring. Father took us to pruning demonstrations put on by experts from the agriculture college. We learned a great truth—that you could pretty well determine the kind of fruit you would pick in September by the way you pruned in February. The idea was to space the branches so that the fruit would be exposed to sunlight and air. Further, we learned that new, young wood produces the best fruit. That has had many applications in life” (April Conference, 1993).
There is a lesson for us in what the farmers in Menan, Idaho are doing, and many others places across the earth, and in what the Hinckley family learned, or what they were taught by President Hinckley’s father many years ago. You are planting tomorrow’s memories today. You are pruning your lives and deciding where the growth will be, deciding how to get the maximum sunshine on the fruit you will carry into middle age, old age, and eternal life. Most of you are still young. You have the very large majority of your lives ahead of you. You are sowing today the harvest of future years. You are deciding today what your memories will be tomorrow and forever. This is the time to pay the price for a future that will be rich, rewarding, and happy.
We see the implications of this clearly with respect to agriculture. If you plant potatoes, you reap potatoes, not rutabagas. If you plant wheat, your crop will not be zucchini. If you cultivate peach trees, you don’t harvest pears. For some reason, however, it sometimes seems that we fail to see that the law of the harvest is as fundamentally true with respect to our conduct as it is with respect to agriculture. We determine our tomorrows today in very important ways.
We are surrounded by messages in today’s world that suggest that the law of the harvest was abrogated by some invisible and silent legislature, and that the things we do only make a difference in the here and now, they have no effect on our lives later, in the there and then. This message is the basis of much of popular entertainment and advertising today. The focus is on now; it’s on today. We can be happy if we will just do what we see being done in the advertisement or in the movie or on television. If we will just dress a certain way, or drink the right beverage, or drive the right car, or, more deviously, adopt moral standards based on immediate gratification. The message is every time, “What’s in it for me, now?” These messages appeal to us only if we insist on assuming a mental posture toward life that is reminiscent of EP’s view: we look at the world in a constant present tense sort of way, ignoring the implications for us in terms of what may be in store in the future. The Book of Mormon describes this approach to life with these words,
“Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die; and it shall be well with us.
“And there shall also be many which shall say: Eat, drink, and be merry; nevertheless, fear God—he will justify in committing a little sin; yea, lie a little, take … advantage of one because of his words, dig a pit for thy neighbor; there is no harm in this; and do all these things, for tomorrow we die; and if it so be that we are guilty, God will beat us with a few stripes, and at last we shall be saved in the kingdom of God” (2 Nephi 28:7 - 8).
This view of life was exemplified in the words of Laman and Lemuel, who said, “…we have wandered in the wilderness for these many years; and our women have toiled, being big with child; and they have borne children in the wilderness and suffered all things, save it were death; and it would have been better that they had died before they came out of Jerusalem than to have suffered these afflictions.
“Behold, these many years we have suffered in the wilderness, which time we might have enjoyed our possessions and the land of our inheritance; yea, and we might have been happy” (1 Nephi 17:20 – 21).
Laman and Lemuel had a clear view of the sacrifice and the suffering, but no sense whatsoever of the eventual reward they were in line to receive—a promised land.
The error of this view is seen by the fruit it produces. Over the long haul, there is no satisfaction in that path, no refreshment for the soul, no eventual sense of well-being at our core. Their situation reminds us of the description given by Isaiah when he wrote, “It shall even be as when an hungry man dreameth, and, behold, he eateth; but he awaketh, and his soul is empty: or as when a thirsty man dreameth, and, behold, he drinketh; but he awaketh, and, behold, he is faint, and his soul hath appetite . . .” (Isaiah 29:8).
Paul explained the law of the harvest this way:
“Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.
“For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting.
“And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not” (Galatians 6:7-9).
Those who blunder on in committing sin or in “[wasting] the days of [their] probation” haven’t considered the message of the farmers in Menan or of the Hinckleys’ family fruit orchard in Salt Lake City.
Planting good works today in order to harvest tomorrow is an act of faith. We sacrifice time and exertion and treasure today in the belief that good things will follow later. Planting for the eventual harvest is the conscious decision to delay gratification, to invest, to give up something today, based on the expectation that by doing so we put ourselves in line for greater rewards later. Recognizing and then heeding the law of the harvest is a hallmark of maturity and wisdom. In a recent address, Elder Douglas L. Callister of the Seventy put the choice this way: “Because time has no end, we are very short-sighted if present decisions fail to contemplate eternal consequences. The desire to 'be happy now' must not disregard the significantly more important desire to be happy forever. This knowledge sometimes gives us strength to say ‘no’ when we need to say ‘no.’
“God's plan does not contemplate rewards or punishments, as much as it contemplates consequences. Truly, a man will reap as he has sown. The law of consequences suggests that often, when we make a correct decision, we pay our price first and reap the reward later. When we make an incorrect decision, we often reap our reward first, but pay our price later (Remarks, Evergreen Conference, Salt Lake City, Utah, September 22, 2007, Church News, September 29, 2007).
As I said earlier, you are sowing memories. You are sowing today, deciding today, the memories you will take with you from your college days. You’re deciding what memories you will take with you from your dating days. You’re deciding what memories you will take with you for the rest of your life and for eternity. You’re deciding who you will be tomorrow, for you will be the sum of today’s decisions—the sum of your experiences, the sum of your memories.
Some of the most important messages of gospel truths are found in our hymns. Hymns have message, they have rhyme and meter and tune and rhythm and so on—all of which combine to help us appreciate and remember the message. Consider this well-known hymn:
We are sowing, daily sowing
Countless seeds of good and ill,
Scattered on the level low-land,
Cast upon the windy hill;
Seeds that sink in rich, brown furrows,
Soft with heaven’s gracious rain;
Seeds that rest upon the surface
Of the dry, unyielding plain;
Seeds that fall amid the stillness
Of the lonely mountain glen;
Seeds cast out in crowded places,
Trodden under foot of men;
Seeds by idle hearts forgotten,
Flung at random on the air;
Seeds by faithful souls remembered,
Sown in tears and love and prayer;
Seeds that lie unchanged, unquickened,
Lifeless on the teeming mold;
Seeds that live and grow and flourish
When the sower’s hand is cold.
By a whisper sow we blessings;
By a breath we scatter strife.
In our words and thoughts and actions
Lie the seeds of death and life.
Thou who knowest all our weakness,
Leave us not to sow alone!
Bid thine angels guard the furrows
Where the precious grain is sown,
Till the fields are crowned with glory,
Filled with mellow, ripened ears,
Filled with fruit of life eternal
From the seed we sowed in tears.
“We Are Sowing,” Hymns, No. 216
We are thus protected, not just threatened, by the law of the harvest. We are blessed to the extent that we recognize that if we sow the right kinds of seeds today, we shall reap by and by. The most important seed you will ever sow, the most important seed you will ever nurture, will be the one that produces faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Alma expressed these feelings with these words:
“We will compare the word unto a seed….if ye give place, that a seed may be planted in your heart, behold, if it be a true seed, or a good seed, if ye do not cast it out by your unbelief, that ye …resist the Spirit of the Lord, behold, it will begin to swell within your breasts; and when you feel these swelling motions, ye will begin to say within yourselves—It must needs be that this is a good seed, or that the word is good, for it beginneth to enlarge my soul; yea, it beginneth to enlighten my understanding, yea, it beginneth to be delicious to me.
“…If ye will nourish the word, yea, nourish the tree as it beginneth to grow, by your faith with great diligence, and with patience, looking forward to the fruit thereof, it shall take root; and behold it shall be a tree springing up unto [eternal] life.
“And because of your diligence and your faith and your patience with the word in nourishing it, that it may take root in you, behold, by and by ye shall pluck the fruit thereof, which is most precious, which is sweet above all that is sweet, and which is white above all that is white… and pure above all that is pure; and ye shall feast upon this fruit even until ye are filled, that ye hunger not, neither shall ye thirst.
“Then, my brethren, ye shall reap the rewards of your faith, and your diligence, and patience, and long-suffering, waiting for the tree to bring forth fruit unto you” (Alma 32:28, 41-43).
The Lord has revealed much about how to frame our lives and build on a foundation for happy memories. One of the most oft-quoted reminders about how to build is one we hear every single Sunday: “O God, the Eternal Father, we ask thee in the name of thy Son, Jesus Christ, to bless and sanctify this bread to the souls of all those who partake of it, that they may eat in remembrance of the body of thy Son, and witness unto thee, O God, the Eternal Father, that they are willing to take upon them the name of thy Son, and always remember him and keep his commandments which he has given them; that they may always have his Spirit to be with them” (D&C 20:77).
In contrast, however, there is another scripture which must be of comfort for all of us. It’s this one: “Behold, he who has repented of his sins, the same is forgiven, and I, the Lord, remember them no more” (D&C 58:42).
Returning now to Alma, and the thought that came into his mind:
“My mind caught hold upon this thought, I cried within my heart: O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me, who am in the gall of bitterness, and am encircled about by the everlasting chains of death.
“And now, behold, when I thought this, I could remember my pains no more; yea, I was harrowed up by the memory of my sins no more.
“And oh, what joy, and what marvelous light I did behold; yea, my soul was filled with joy as exceeding as was my pain!
“Yea, I say unto you, my son, that there could be nothing so exquisite and so bitter as were my pains. Yea, and again I say unto you, my son, that on the other hand, there can be nothing so exquisite and sweet as was my joy” (Alma 36:18 - 21).
Thus, we can understand the anxiety of Helaman when teaching his sons Lehi and Nephi. In four verses, Helaman used the word “remember” 13 times in four verses, including from those verses, these:
“O remember, remember, my sons, the words which king Benjamin spake unto his people; yea, remember that there is no other way nor means whereby man can be saved, only through the atoning blood of Jesus Christ, who shall come; yea, remember that he cometh to redeem the world.
“And remember also the words which Amulek spake unto Zeezrom, in the city of Ammonihah; for he said unto him that the Lord surely should come to redeem his people, but that he should not come to redeem them in their sins, but to redeem them from their sins.
“And he hath power given unto him from the Father to redeem them from their sins because of repentance; therefore he hath sent… angels to declare the tidings of the conditions of repentance, which bringeth unto the power of the Redeemer, unto the salvation of their souls.
“And now, my sons, remember, remember that it is upon the rock of our Redeemer, who is Christ, the Son of God, that ye must build your foundation; that when the devil shall send forth his mighty winds, yea, his shafts in the whirlwind, yea, when all his hail and his mighty storm shall beat upon you, it shall have no power over you to drag you down to the gulf of misery and endless wo, because of the rock upon which ye are built, which is a sure foundation, a foundation whereon if men build they cannot fall” (Helaman 5:9 - 12).
I pray that each of us, brothers and sisters, will consider the power of memories in our lives, and the eventual restoration of all our memories, and that we may wisely plant the kinds of memories today that will be delicious to us in the future. The secret to doing that is to remember the Savior, take upon us His name with full purpose of heart. By so doing, we ensure that our memories will be sweet and delicious forever. Where change is needed and memory needs to be cleansed through the power of the atonement of Jesus Christ, may we have the strength to seek that blessing humbly. May we be wise in all our choices, and recognize that the key to our eternal happiness, starting right now, is to pattern our lies after the Savior. Surely His path is the only way to lives of beauty and memories that will bless us across eternity. I pray that this understanding will sink into our hearts, in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.