Who Are We without Our Memories?

BreakPoint.org

What would it be like to live only—and exclusively—in the present?

Clive Wearing, a former musician for the BBC, is now the most famous amnesia patient in the world. In 1985, Clive suffered a severe fever that gave him both anterograde and retrograde amnesia. That means he can neither form new memories, nor recall most of his previous life. Instead, he lives his life thirty seconds at a time.

Clive’s struggle has been well chronicled in two documentaries, the first produced in 1986 and the second in 2005. Clive retains some knowledge—he can play piano expertly, for example, and remembers that he is married—he doesn’t remember the wedding, his children, or his wife’s name. The dominant experience of Clive’s life, repeated hundreds of times a day, is of waking up from a coma for the very first time, without knowledge of who or where he is.

“You are the first people I’ve spoken to in thirty years,” he repeatedly tells his interviewers.

Clive’s story has inspired multiple publications of medical and psychological research, not to mention haunting existential questions. Who are we without our memories? What is life worth with no knowledge of the past and no ability to form new experiences from the present? Where is the hope for the future in this?

While much has been written about Clive, the most powerful story lies with his wife, Deborah. The two had been married only a year when catastrophe struck. In the midst of her shock and grief, Deborah campaigned relentlessly to get Clive the care he needed. However, after seven years, she reached an impasse. A future with Clive seemed unbearable after years of the same questions, the same confusion, the same anguish.

Deborah decided to leave and start a new life in America. She moved to New York, intent on resuming a career in the arts. She even tried new relationships. However, none of it worked.

I wanted to be with someone else and have kids and a regular life. Yet how can you love somebody when you already love somebody? I loved Clive,” she wrote later in her book Forever Today.

It was only after she returned to England, torn by what felt like the impossibility of life, that she found a future. It came from an unexpected source.

“I’d reached the end of my tether, and I rang a friend and I asked her to pray for me,”  Deborah described years later.

“She was the only Christian I knew, and as she was whispering away to God, I just felt this extraordinary power coming into me. And I knew that God was in my room. I just had this incredible sense that I was really, really loved … and that emptiness that I had been trying to fill all those years with relationships, with food, with alcohol, I was filled. ”

That moment changed everything for Deborah. She discovered peace. Though God did not erase her suffering or Clive’s, suddenly their lives were imbued with purpose.

In a scene from the 2005 documentary, standing in a London church, Deborah tells Clive about one of the last concerts he performed before the illness stole his memory: “It was so moving that everyone was in tears. That’s how good of a musical director you were.”

At this, Clive is filled with emotion. Though he cannot remember the scene, or even the name of the woman describing it to him, he sensed her compassion.  “I’m amazed that you would say that,” he said. “I can’t think that.”

“You were marvelous. You still are marvelous,” she replied and kissed him on the cheek.

Where, in the entire modern arsenal of materialist evolution, self-help, and expressive individualism is love like that to be found? Much less explained. Each of these dominant theories that claim to explain so much only turns the search for love and purpose inward. In the end, as Augustine described, these eternal values become incurvatus in se, destructively turned in on themselves—no help in the face of serious struggle.

True love, like what Deborah offers Clive, dignifies the other. It’s turned outward. Though he doesn’t recall her visits, when asked what he wants to do after Deborah leaves, Clive answers: “A gin and tonic I think, and a cigarette. Waiting for time to elude and disappear. And her arrival.”

Image credit: ©Getty Images / nastenkapeka

The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Christian Headlines.


BreakPoint is a program of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. BreakPoint commentaries offer incisive content people can't find anywhere else; content that cuts through the fog of relativism and the news cycle with truth and compassion. Founded by Chuck Colson (1931 – 2012) in 1991 as a daily radio broadcast, BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends. Today, you can get it in written and a variety of audio formats: on the web, the radio, or your favorite podcast app on the go.

John Stonestreet is President of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, and radio host of BreakPoint, a daily national radio program providing thought-provoking commentaries on current events and life issues from a biblical worldview. John holds degrees from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (IL) and Bryan College (TN), and is the co-author of Making Sense of Your World: A Biblical Worldview.

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