Story is Memory

How many of y'all here have been to Disneyland?

The first time I visited I must have been four, because my baby brother was literally still a baby in our mother's arms. It was Christmas time, as the Magic Kingdom looked especially magical decked out in holiday lights. Mom used to tell me that my favorite attraction was the General Electric-sponsored animatronic family in Tomorrowland that I made us watch three times. But I barely remembered that. The ride I remembered best and could recreate scene by scene in my mind as if I were riding it again, was the Pirates of the Caribbean. Do you remember that ride?

I remembered how we got on boats that moved along rails in the water, how we wrapped around a little island with a pile of shiny treasure, how we slowly approached a scary talking skull and crossbones, and then dropped, down into a dark cave with the cold wind rushing past my face – terrifying! – how at the end of the drop we passed some pirates locked in a cage trying to lure a dog with keys in its mouth. And how, after going along another dark bend, the ride opened up into a huge, bright space. A ballroom with lords and ladies in fancy dress spinning together in circles as an organ plays. Do you remember that?

I sincerely hope that no one said 'yes' because the ride I just described never existed, except in my mind. Which is not to say that I made it up out of nothing. Rather, as I learned when I visited Disneyland again in my 20s, what I remembered was parts from two different rides – the beginning of the Pirates of the Caribbean and a latter part of the Haunted Mansion – and my mind had fused them together to make one memory, which I would have sworn is how I experienced it.

This is, in fact, how memory works. Our brains recall only bits and pieces – who knows why some and not others, altho we can guess - and our minds automatically stitch them together, sometimes inventing new images to fill in blanks, sometimes altering events slightly such that it makes more sense to us. In short, we create a story of the events that is more or less based on reality, filtered by our personal perspective. And that story takes on its own reality.

If our memories that we have while still alive are already so altered, imagine what happens over generations to the stories passed down. To the stories that we tell as our collective memories.

Like the one about a baby laid in a manger, because there was no room at the inn. of whom angels sang, which scared some shepherds. did it happen? was it exaggerated? was it all made up? I'm sure we all have our opinions on this. But most of us here are likely familiar with this story, which gets repeated on this day in congregations and households across the world. A collective memory, that is also altered by personal perspective.

For example, as I heard Rev Dorsey Blake over at Fellowship Church preach about it one year, if Mary and Joseph were wealthy, you can bet that there'd have been room for them in that inn. To Rev Blake and others, the most salient part of the story is that Jesus was born poor. Others, especially from immigrant communities, focus on the part where Joseph and Mary go door-to-door seeking refuge, only to be turned away repeatedly until that last inn. And some congregations focus on the heavenly host singing their adoration to a newborn king.

Each one of these versions adds something extra to fill in blanks, or alters things slightly to make more sense to their perspective. (As the biblical writers likely did too.) The version that we tell reinforces our own perspective and passes it down to the next generation.

A popular Broadway show asks, “who tells your story?” If we don't tell our stories, then we let others tell them for us. We let others shape our future collective memories and realities. So tell your stories – your personal ones, your family ones, and our collective ones. Tell them in your own way, but tell them, because story is how we remember.

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