Are you finding that you can’t remember as you used to? That something is happening to your memory, not so much distant events in the past but about what you experience currently? You have a conversation – on the phone, on Zoom, ‘live’ in person – but soon after (very soon after) it’s gone? You listen to a talk, or a sermon, or someone explaining an issue (personal or collective), but hours later – or even minutes later – it has somehow disappeared?
I know that as we get older some of us have lapses of memory about names, or some words don’t appear in our minds as quickly as they once did. But I’m not talking about that. That’s a well-known phenomenon – it even has a colloquial name: ‘senior moments’. I’m talking about something else that’s happening (or I think is happening) – and it’s transgenerational; and, also, it has nothing to do with dementia.
I suspect that the way our minds now absorb verbal information – I am not talking about images, but words – is undergoing a profound change. I would like to understand this phenomenon better, but I am trying here to make a preliminary start to thinking about it.
I had thought that this was maybe a Zoom-era issue, and that the artificiality and limitations of Zoom, the ‘glass life’ world we now live in, is generating this difficulty in remembering what we hear through Zoom, what we hear on Zoom. (Do we hear through the screen or on the screen? I don’t know). But what I’m trying to get at precedes Zoom; though, paradoxically perhaps, this last year on Zoom has brought it to the fore for me, and made it possible to think about.
To put it in a nutshell, I would suggest that we are forgetting what we hear because for the last twenty years and more our brains have changed, subtly but irrevocably. How has this happened? I am beginning to think that with the omnipresence and availability of knowledge systems outside ourselves – Google, of course, but also messaging and communications systems that hold our information and history for us, including through audio and video recordings - our immersion for decades now in this membrane of externally held and retrievable knowledge means we no longer have to remember. And we know it. We can look things up, we can retrieve what matters. Or what we think matters.
This has penetrated deep into us. We forget what we hear because our brains are becoming conditioned not to hold on to words - but to look them up. Our capacity to remember from inside of ourselves what we have just heard is becoming atrophied. We don’t have to be fully attentive to the moment, to really Shema (“pay attention”). Those days have gone, it’s just sort of happened to us. Our smartphones and laptops have become extensions of us – memory resides within their reach, so we don’t have to remember for our selves. And because we know we don’t have to hold on to what we hear, we increasingly can’t – even if we want to.
What we might be left with after we have listened to someone for a while is a sense-impression, a feeling – pleasure, irritation, frustration, indifference, puzzlement, excitement – these are the residues that stay around for a while, rather than the content.
I think I first began to sense that reliance on technology was changing how our brains function while watching football. (This isn’t to do with words, of course, but sight). I began to realise that when I went to a live game and a goal was scored I couldn’t recall it a moment later, except in a very fuzzy way: I had become so used to seeing a replay while watching on TV that my brain was waiting for this at an actual game; it had lost its capacity to stay focused moment by moment on what was unfolding in real time in front of me. My memory recall – the internal capacity to ‘replay’ what I had just seen - had become dulled. And sometimes it just wasn’t there.
When I realised I wasn’t alone in this, I began to wonder what it meant for other areas of our life, like listening to people speaking.
And gradually I heard, more and more often, people say something like: “Yes, I was there, I heard them speak, but I can’t remember anything they said”. Now of course this can be to do with lack of attentiveness in the listener – as well as any lack of dynamism (or having anything interesting to say) in the speaker. But I am now more and more of the view that the changes going on in us are more fundamental.
I have a personal stake in this because I do, from time to time, share some thoughts in public – they are called sermons, although I prefer to thin k of them as ‘sharing some thoughts’. But if what I’m talking about here has some truth to it, then the tradition of sermon-giving is coming to an end. People won’t remember anything I say afterwards. People have said to me: “Well, I know your sermon will be on the synagogue’s website, so it’s okay if I don’t remember”. And maybe that’s the way it will be from now on. We become dependent on external technology and stop holding others’ words close to our hearts. Maybe I’m alone in this, but this creates a great sadness in me as I think about the implications of in wider contexts.
The doyen of contemporary American novelists, Don DeLillo, hints at this in his latest novel ‘The Silence’ where an event – unspecified – disables all electricity and electronic communications worldwide. His characters are left with their own words, thoughts, personal communications – from moment to moment – with no technological backup, no smartphones, no information-holding systems: nothing. Nothing except what goes on in their heads and between real living, existentially-stranded, people.
When you are faced with dead screens and silent phones what do you have left? As one of DeLillo’s characters says: “The current situation tells us that there’s nothing else to say except what comes into our heads, which none of us will remember anyway”.
I gave my first sermon about Covid almost exactly a year ago: on March 5th the first UK death from Covid was confirmed , and there were then about 100 confirmed cases, and a year ago this weekend the Prime Minister, announcing the first tranche of funding in the search for a vaccine, told us: "It looks like there will be a substantial period of disruption where we have to deal with this outbreak." (March 6th, 2020)
That gets my prize for ‘Understatement of the Year’.
So as we move into March we are marking a rather grim anniversary. Year One of the new era. I’m not going to rehearse here the history of what we have gone through these past 12 months: you all know the ‘disruption’, to use Mr. Johnson’s word, that you have experienced. You know all about the multiple losses: to loved ones, and beloved activities, and loving contact; you know what you have suffered, what you have missed, what you have sacrificed, what you have lost out on.
And you know too that you’ve staggered on, through this past year, through this unfolding drama of history - though you might be unsure how you’ve done it, or what the cost has been, emotional and psychological; but you might glimpse from time to time the mental hardship below the surface, that’s tested your resilience, your robustness.
And you’ll know too what resources of generosity and compassion you’ve been able to summon up from inside yourself: what you have shared and offered to others; in what ways you’ve reached out and kept in touch, and sometimes created something new from out of the midst of this ‘disruption’.
Whether it’s been a surprise to you to discover how large your capacity is for change and adaptation, or been dismayed by how fragile you might have felt this year, it’s been a year that has really tested us.
And now I think we in the UK sense that we are in a new phase of the Great Disruption. Vaccines have been developed at miraculous, historically unprecedented, speed in a great collective transnational enterprise on behalf of humanity’s wellbeing. Although of course when the more small-minded politicians put their oar in, there have been, and continue to be, issues of nationalism and competitiveness in the roll-out and distribution of these vaccines. Nevertheless, the collective effort of the scientific community is surely a model of how a global threat to wellbeing can generate a radical push to find solutions. This could act (though it may not) as a model for how to address the environmental crisis, that other great threat to our wellbeing. Not that science will help solve that problem – but global collective action could.
So the vaccines have led to the latest road map for opening up, here in the UK, and whether you are a member of a religious community or not I imagine you will be keen to see how this opening up will play out in your community, as well as the wider society in which we live.
There are two ethical/religious principles in play as this opening up takes place. Whether it is a particular community or a national one I am hope two basic principles will guide us.
The first is that in a community – like in a country – we each have a collective responsibility to protect one another. Lives are at stake and whatever we decide we will keep in mind that the health and wellbeing of each of us is at the centre of our decision-making. There is a famous Jewish principle that “All Israel are sureties for each other” – in other words, we as Jews are responsible for the wellbeing of other Jews. But this particularistic teaching is a teaching we recognise is a gift to humanity for it has a universalistic dimension (and there are Jewish sources for this). We now know, and can say: “All human beings are sureties for each other”. The pandemic has re-enforced the wisdom of this: we each have a collective responsibility to protect one another. And that means, where possible, being vaccinated. Whatever the hesitations, prejudices, rumours that go around – vaccination is a moral responsibility.
And the second principle to be guided by in decision-making relates to personal autonomy and freedom - which is valuable, and in a way sacrosanct, but we mustn’t make an idol out of it. (The Hebrew Bible is rather zealous in its attempts to persuade its readers not to make idols out of objects and ideas).
And this second principle is: your individual freedom does not include the right to potentially harm others. The classic example always given here is about one not having the right to shout “Fire” in a crowded theatre because of the panic it could set off. One implication of this is that if you refuse a vaccination you can’t demand to be part of a collective gathering.
So two ethical principles: collective responsibility and the sovereignty of, but necessary limits to, personal freedom.
[Based loosely on thoughts shared via Zoom for Finchley Reform Synagogue, March 6th, 2021}