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Memory, Identity and Belonging: What Makes You You?

In Marcel Proust’s classic novel Remembrance of Things Past, tasting a sponge cake dipped in tea triggers a sea of memories by which the narrator explores how the past, and our recalling of it, make us who we are.

But what if you had no memories? Would you be any less “you”? Would you be somehow less human?

These are the questions writer Daniel Levitin had to wrestle with.

Writing  in the Atlantic Monthly, Levitin told a story that began when he was in college. A psychology professor told the class about a friend and colleague who’d recently been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. Before the tumor killed him, it would rob him of his long-term memory.

For the professor, this was a fate worse than death. In his estimation, “who you are is the sum total of all that you’ve experienced.”

His friend agreed: Faced with the prospect of losing his identity and sense of self, he committed suicide.

Levitin recalled that the only dissent to this link between memory and identity came from his classmate, Tom.

That makes the rest of the story especially poignant. Several decades later, Levitin learns that Tom has been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor and, like the professor’s friend, he will lose all of his memories before he dies.

Levitin’s account of his visit is sad and touching in its honest depiction of an unimaginably awkward conversation. But what isn’t sad is his realization that Tom was right, after all. Despite the loss of his memories, “something fundamentally Tom was still there. Some of us call it personality, or essence. Some call it the ‘soul.’ Whatever it is, the tumor that took Tom’s memory had not touched it.”

Levitin doesn’t make the connection, at least not explicitly, but his ability to discern “Tom,” despite the cognitive impairment, involved looking beyond what Tom could or couldn’t do. Tom’s personhood, and the dignity that flows from it, did not depend on his meeting certain criteria.

This may seem abstract, but it has real-world implications. Because if who we are is dependent on our ability to recall what we’ve experienced, then we are on the verge of an explosion in the number of “nobodies.”

The increase in life expectancy has been accompanied by a steep increase in the number of people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and other diseases that affect memory. The number of cases is projected to triple by 2050.

At the other end of the age range, the number of children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder is rising.

Thus, the very young and very old are increasingly falling prey to conditions that, if we take Levitin’s professor at his word, makes them somehow incomplete.

Incomplete, but also a financial burden. By one estimate, an amount equal to the GDP of Indonesia, about $400 billion, is spent on caring for people with senior dementia. Billions more are spent on caring for children with ASD.

This is as it should be. The church’s task is to stand fast in protection of human identity, worth, and, especially, dignity. Our message should be that it is not what we can or cannot do that makes us human and, thus, worthy of respect and protection.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if we remember who we are. What matters is Whose we are, and He will never forget His own.

Eric Metaxas is a co-host of BreakPoint Radio and a best-selling author whose biographies, children's books, and popular apologetics have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

BreakPoint commentary airs each weekday on more than one thousand outlets with an estimated listening audience of one million people. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print.

Publication date: January 14, 2013

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