A Subtle Shift

Memory is a tricky thing. Long after an event, we are left with our memories of it. Tree Book TreeMore to the point, we are left with our memories of the details, what people did or did not do, what certain people said or perhaps left unsaid. The past is gone, but our understanding of it is very much alive, growing, changing.

The same is true of stories. That is what memories are, in a way, a collage of imprinted and recorded actions, words and feelings that have been formed into a narrative in our minds, our story. Though we think the past has happened, in our minds it is still happening. The past never stops changing.

Take one of the most famous of stories, Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. It may be no one knows just how old the story is. The final written form, so far as the scriptural version is concerned, was recorded centuries ago, all the bits jotted down. Yet, it keeps changing.

Ask anyone familiar with the story, and that includes many people who think that they really are not, and each person will tell you a slightly different version. Among those who are familiar with the story, you will hear something more fascinating: they will add something to it.

Take the serpent, who in later retelling becomes the devil. It isn’t the devil in the original story. It is just a wily serpent, a wild animal, more crafty than any other, but an animal, one who talks. We shouldn’t be surprised that the serpent talks. After all, a little later in the story, God is walking like a human being would walk in the garden.

The point is that there is a subtle shift between what we actually read and what we say is in the story, just as there is a subtle shift in our memories between what happened and what we remember. What we remember is not what happened. That may be for the better. We may remember difficult events in the past through the filter of forgiveness, or simply with more perspective, and without even knowing that we are doing it. That shift may be a blessing, sometimes a very great one.

The same kind of subtle shift in the stories that form us can likewise be a blessing, bringing more meaning and substance to our understandings. The shift can also be a curse, undermining our ability to hear what the stories are really telling us.

Eve and Adam reached a point when they ate the forbidden fruit. No actual apples are mentioned, not really, and nobody in the garden says anything about sin, original or otherwise. They reached a point when they gained self awareness and a sense of moral conscience. Interestingly, in our own lives we call that moment maturity, not the Fall.

Likewise, there may be something older and simpler even in the written form of the story itself, something before the shift, so to speak. God tells the woman that she shall have children, though it will also bring pain. God tells Adam that he shall work, and that it will be difficult, but that his work will feed him and his family. Later, all three things, awareness of our mortality and childbirth and work, begin to be called consequences and curses by theologians.

I suggest we might consider a slightly different shift, one that may be more helpful in our lives. Just as the human race at large, an eon ago, gained a sense of mortality and of morality and of self awareness, each of us as individuals go through the same process. Once we embrace our own mortality and step out of the garden of our youth, we find two things that will sustain us and that will remain after us: our children and our work. Neither is a curse. Our understanding and appreciation of each flows from our maturity. Neither our children nor our work depend upon sin, original or otherwise. Neither are consequences of our flaws; instead, each is a means to reach beyond our flaws and our limitations.

Our family and our work, that is what we have. We may also want to allow another subtle shift: our family may be more than our biological relatives, and our work is more than our job. We have the people near us, and we have the work we do around, among and sometimes despite them. Whether these things are blessings or curses will depend on our point of view, our memories, and all our subtle shifts.