We have all read in scientific books, and, indeed, in all romances, the story of the man who has forgotten his name. This man walks about the streets and can see and appreciate everything; only he cannot remember who he is. Well, every man is that man in the story. Every man has forgotten who he is. One may understand the cosmos, but never the ego; the self more distant than any star. Thou shalt love the Lord thy God; but thou shalt not know thyself. We are all under the same mental calamity; we have all forgotten our names. We have all forgotten what we really are. All that we call common sense and rationality and practicality and positivism only means that for certain dead levels of our life we forget that we have forgotten. All that we call spirit and art and ecstasy only means that for one awful instant we remember that we forget.
From “The Ethics of Elfland” in Orthodoxy, by G.K. Chesterton
I would really like to know just how many times it has been done: how many times has a television sitcom or drama resorted to an amnesia episode? Sure, there have been many thousands of television shows produced over the years, and not all of them have used amnesia as a story, but it seems pretty far-reaching and I’d bet that a fairly large percentage of serial-type shows which have made it past two seasons have featured a story about amnesia.
Now, since I don’t in any way consider myself a critic of television and movies, it’s easy for me to say that amnesia is occasionally a welcome story cliché. Sometimes the idea – worn and battered as it may be – ends up almost refreshing a character in a long-running show. As if you, along with the character and his/her associates, get to breathe a little easier once that character goes back to “normal” and the eccentric stress and dissonance of the amnesia is over. But for every time the trope amnesia episode turns out refreshing, there are probably three amnesia episodes which just feel like a writer has run out of ideas.
Running out of ideas isn’t necessarily surprising, by the way. A few times I’ve been impressed by how long a show has gone before it finally resorts to the cliché. Writing 200 fresh episodes has got to be rather difficult, and especially so when a production team is doing their best to move an independent storyline which connects each individual episode along while maintaining character idiosyncrasies and preferences. Consequently, if you’re under contract to deliver 21 scripts in series 7 of a show with only a few major characters and a repetitious formula, should it surprise any of us if a writer resorts to amnesia as filler? If we’re honest about it – and if we’re not some rabid critic for a daily newspaper, ardent in our insistence that all things be distinctive and original – probably not.
Ultimately though, in spite of my sophomoric understanding of what makes for “good” entertainment, I think my point about refreshment of a character by experiencing that character’s amnesiatic (is that a word?) doppelganger is pretty decent. Sometimes you get so bogged down in a character’s flaws that you can’t see how comfortable you’ve gotten with who they are in general. This happens in real life too. A girl might choose to start dating a boy because she thinks he’s “sweet” and “gentle” at first, but as familiarity with the boy grows the love for the sweetness and gentleness declines into an overwhelming frustration with his “naiveté” and “spinelessness” – which are just flipsides of the same coin. But all it takes is for the girl to see that same boy when he’s amnesiatically (how about THAT word?) “mean” and “harsh” to realize that sweet and gentle is much better … even if accompanied by the occasional naiveté and weakness.
If we keep thinking about amnesia in real life though, we’d have to say that the external impacts of amnesia have got to be nothing compared to the internal. It is hard to imagine the confusion of a waking up and not knowing who or where you are. Even though it might be kind of cool to wake amnesiatically (there it is again!) and find out that I had super-spy skills like Jason Bourne, I’d probably be so frightened by being rudderless mentally, that I wouldn’t be able to enjoy the ability to disarm and knock out two Swiss Polizei in a couple of lightning-quick moves. Plus, that’s not how amnesia would work for me. I wouldn’t end up waking with super-spy skills, I’d instead wake to find out that I’m some overweight, asthmatic dude named Silvester who cleans septic tanks for a living in Hope, Arkansas (*shiver*).
However, amnesia – even with all of its horrible requisite pain and sadness – pales in comparison to an unquestionably worse fate; one which is also unquestionably more common. In fact, there is no person alive who has not succumbed to the disease of forgetting who we are. No, not like television’s Adrian Monk forgetting who he is and finding a moment’s respite from all of his fearful neuroses. Instead, we forget the truth to our own peril and agony: the man/woman failing to recall that he/she is a child of the King and choosing instead to wallow hungry and impoverished in the pigpen of a far-off land of pagans.
We could tell a story of a princess, orphaned and enslaved in a wicked land, who suddenly finds herself unaccountably loved by a great empire’s wise and noble prince. Their romance lilts through months of bliss until the prince asks her to marry him and offers her everything she could never hope to attain in her current state even if given one million lifetimes, plus his priceless love besides. Then, inexplicably, she forgets all of his love, his offer of marriage, and the freedom he could provide from the depredations of her life, and she pledges herself to a cruel, abusive, destitute tyrant instead. It is to that level of horribly foul depths to which our amnesia probes.
Perhaps the real things are too good to be true and so we forget due to incredulity? Perhaps they are too holy and so we forget due to fear? Perhaps they are too perfect and so we fall for the lie that perfection is too bland? Perhaps they are too independently glorious and so we arrogantly search for a way to create glory on our own terms? Perhaps they are too true and so we fear being found as a liar amidst that truth’s glare? Perhaps they are too demanding and so we indolently shrink from its burdens? Our amnesia comes not from a blow to the head, but from a defiant skepticism which does violence to all we know to be correct – a vicious blow to the heart. We would rather slip into an amnesiatic nightmare if it comes on our terms than remember our own inherent worth by being made in the image of God. As a result, all that is left to us is pale shadows of this glorious truth: that we were made for goodness and joy, not pain and anguish.
Amidst all of the wreckage we – along with the billions of other humans who have lived – spew from our terrifying amnesiatic lives, the taunts of the true things eerily reverberate. We spend our entire amnesiatic nightmare erecting walls to protect us from the true life which we have betrayed, and yet through the cracks in those walls shine brilliant beams of dazzling truth. A little baby is born and the beam of new life illuminates us for a moment. An act of unselfishness from a stranger irradiates us for another instant. Joyful sacrifice from a family member strikes us blind for a split-second more. And though the light is a searing pain to our voluntarily-blind eyes, we exult in its delights and remember for a moment what we have desperately attempted to relegate to the dustbin of our mind: that the good which exists was something on which we had a claim until we rashly and foolishly renounced it.
There is something to be said for retracing our mental steps to the point where all went wrong; even if it means that we renew our silly, childish imaginations too. Though we were fighting dragons and riding unicorns, if we were able to see the truth of our worth and our heritage at the same time, then wouldn’t we be better off? Or perhaps retracing our mental steps means to go to a point of persistent pain in one’s life? Though it might cause us to relive our worst temporal moments, would it not be useful if it also meant that eternal hope and a future returned as well? The simple fact is that we might seek to repress something like innocence or pain by forgetting that it ever happened and in doing so we may shut out the very light which illumines us. Or we may slip into amnesia in order to protect ourselves from being made to look foolish or gullible and find that we have separated ourselves from joy and beauty at the same time.
We all forget. Not one of us is aware enough of perfect reality to know full delight and purpose – or, as Chesterton put it, “spirit and art and ecstasy.” We all lapse into moments and days and years and decades of willful amnesia and all joy and goodness departs as well. We need that moment of awakening to come and make us whole again; that moment when we suddenly realize that stupor has been our route to poverty and pain. As if we were a child in the throes of a nightmare, we need to be shaken gently awake by our Father, so that He can embrace us and say to us, “My child, it was just a dream. You are home, you are safe, you are Mine, and I love you.”