Last week my mother fell down a stairway. She fractured her skull and sustained severe bruising to the left temporal lobe of her brain. Non-responsive for several days, she recently awoke to a confusing world of faces she cannot place and words she cannot comprehend.
She can smile and point and say a few simple words like “hi” and “OK.” Mostly, she looks perplexed.
The left temporal lobe is the area of the brain that controls speech, comprehension and long-term memory.
To be without memory is to be cut-off, not just from one’s past, but from one’s enduring connections with others. And insomuch as one’s identity consists of relationships with others, to lose one’s memory is to lose a significant portion of one’s identity.
The ancient Greek philosopher Plato claimed that all knowledge is a function of memory. To know something is not simply to believe it but to recognize it. Likewise, to know a person is not merely to be informed about who he or she is, but to be familiar with the person and then to be able to recall the circumstances of that familiarity.
To know something is thus to remember it, to establish once again one’s relationship to the thing in question, to be connected to it. To know other people is to establish and then sustain a relationship, which we do primarily through words.
Words are so important to human relationships that without a common language, spending time together is difficult. St. Augustine, the fourth century Catholic bishop, observed that it is easier to sit in a room with a dog than with a fellow human being who doesn’t share the same language.
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The word “conversation” (from the Latin con-vertere, literally “to turn together”) originally meant something like “way of life.” Over the centuries its meaning was reduced to simply “talking together,” presumably because so much of our lives is taken up with forming and sustaining meaningful relationships through words.
Talking together is how we connect and then reconnect with each other. We greet, debate, inquire, apologize, encourage and condole. We catch up over coffee, participate in meetings, tell jokes and listen to stories. Words are the means by which we shape communal life.
I don’t know whether my mother will regain her ability to speak clearly and coherently. The injury to her brain was so severe that she will most likely always struggle to some extent with speech and comprehension. But the more important question is: will she remember her children and grandchildren?
Perhaps not. But we can remember for her. We can remake and then work to sustain the connections that bind us together. That’s the gift of community — that others may do what the individual cannot. By spending time, initiating her into the little rituals that comprise daily life, she may once again find her place. Not exactly the same place she occupied before, but maybe something close to it, and with its own share of significance.
The task before my family is a microcosm of the task perpetually facing humanity. Our basic moral obligation to one another is always to remember, to put back together, to “make whole,” insofar as that is possible. Whenever someone has experienced a significant loss, whether caused by accident, violence, betrayal or natural disaster, doing what is right consists of trying to put lives back into some kind of order.
Building does not come as easily as tearing down. To remember takes time. All the time in the world.
The Ethical Life is a series of reflections on the ways ethical thinking influences our actions, emotions and relationships. Richard Kyte is the director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University.