March 13, 2023


Remember Me at My Best: Memory and Forgiveness in David Copperfield (Sophia Klomparens, 3/13/23, Voegelin View)

Let us put it this way. To remember someone at their best is to choose to tell the story that redeems them. It is an act of forgiveness. It acknowledges that there is more than one story that you could tell about this person, and perhaps one of those stories is more complete, but the other is kinder. To remember someone at their best is to tell the kind story.

In 1 Corinthians, St. Paul says that "love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things." This may seem a mysterious and, frankly, absurd claim. What could it possibly mean for love to believe all things? Besides, St. Paul tells us in the same breath that love keeps no record of wrongs, which sounds equally ridiculous. All of us certainly keep a record of wrongs--perhaps many records of wrongs. But could "believing all things" mean acting against our instincts? Could "believing all things" mean choosing to think of everyone--even our enemies--at their best?

At the climax of David Copperfield, Steerforth makes a request of David. By making that request, Steerforth acknowledges that he has done things--or in this case, that he will do things--that overshadow the memory of the kind protector who saved young David all those years ago. He may commit sins that transform him from an object of love into an object of hatred. He may never repent, and if that happens, David will be forced to make a choice: Will I honor my old friend's last request of me, even though it is difficult? Will I choose to think of him at his best?

After Steerforth drowns in a terrible storm, he washes up on the shore. Poor David is the first to find the dead body of his old friend; as the narrator, he tells us, "I saw him lying with his head upon his arm, as I had often seen him lie at school." David sees Steerforth as he was at school--mature, good, kind, protective. At this low point, when David has every reason to hate Steerforth for ruining the life and reputation of a dear friend, he continues to think of Steerforth at his best.

The trouble is that it is much easier to remember someone at their worst, especially if they were once dear to you. It is significantly less painful to denigrate someone in your mind, to reduce all their fullness and complexity down to a single event or action, than it is to remember their best, most noble moments. It hurts to miss a real human being. But if you remember a monster, you succeed in deadening your own pain. No one misses a monster. These are the stories, however, that will make us hard and bitter when we retell them, even just to ourselves. On the other hand, there are stories that will make us richer, fuller, wiser--and more open to love. When we fail to think of others at their best, we are really marring our own souls.

Posted by at March 13, 2023 12:00 AM