On this day of private reflection many people have paused to remember the past – loved ones who have been taken from us, the loss of life as it was known. Memories make us who we are. In our own internal lives, in our own heads, memories compete with each other to make us who we are today. The memory we have as the day begins can set us up for the day, make our mood for that day. Competing memories bid to dominate us and whichever gains the upper hand makes us who we are. At times there seems to be little control over those competing memories, the painful memories tend to dominate as they resonate with the pain that is in our bodies as well as in our souls. Memory and competition in our private worlds.
What happens to us in our own private lives is a reflection of what is going on in the world around us too for all around us memories of things that happened in the years of the troubles, the years of the conflict, compete to make us who we are as a community. If it isn’t wall murals that remind us it is the telling of an event from the past which either sits comfortably with us or annoys us deeply because that isn’t the way we saw things. We struggle through the daily accounts, the media reflections , the politicians wranglings. The sounds and images of today tap into the memory of this society to set it up for the day. The memories can set the community we live in up on parallel and competing tracks or they can offer another possibility, one that breaks free of those competing tracks and gives hope for something better, something different, something that means we will never have to, and our children will never have to, face what was faced in the past. So we try to navigate our way through competing memories and to help us find our way we often take the hands of our children, our grand-children, our nephews and nieces. And we do that because they remind us that how we live today makes their future just as how those who lived in the past made us who we are. Margaret Mead, the sociologist, wrote:
The solution to adult problems tomorrow depends in large measure upon how our children grow up today.
We become concerned to make memories for the next generation which will mean their lives are different than ours have been. We want to place into their minds and hearts strong memories which will compete with the kinds of memories that we know can almost break a person or limit their lives leaving them without hope or ambition. But it is a struggle when it comes to competing memories for some are so strong, so dominant that we can hardly find our way to other memories.
Vamik Volkan has written about this. Volkan was born in Nicosia, Cyprus to Turkish parents. His country lived through division, violence and the experience of many who remain disappeared. Volkan has been involved in bringing together ethnic groups in conflicted areas of the world, particularly in the Middle East and the former Soviet Union. He writes about how different groups have ‘chosen glories’ and ‘chosen traumas’ which make them who they are. These glories and traumas live in memory to make the groups what they are today. The memories are competing, each groups memory shaping it against the other group and the memories have real currency in the daily lives of the people of that community. He speaks of these glories and traumas as being chosen so he is opening up a challenge to different ethnic groups to examine their chosen glories and their chosen traumas and to consider those of the other group as well. This is a way out of the endless cycle of us and them, the cycle of difference that sets people against one another and affirms that they are different from each other.
By chosen glories Volkan means those things that a group chooses to remember to make it feel good about itself. They bring glory to the group. It could be a victorious battle or a great leader, a reformer, a change-maker or a martyr. These memories, these chosen glories, give a sense of pride to the group, bolstering self-esteem. In this country we see our chosen glories displayed in flags and painted kerbstones, in murals and acts of commemoration whether it be the commemoration of Wolfe Tone or King Billy. We hear those chosen glories in our songs and in our poetry which uphold our heroes and the glorious events, as we see them, of the past.
(Le caoin-chead ROSC)
If I could coax an Irish child to listen
To Pearse’s lines about the slanting sun;
If I could help him glean a little fraction
From this man’s knowledge of the Eternal One.
If I could lead him in Pearse’s footsteps,
And fire him with the oath that this boy vowed;
If he perchance should kneel and thus pray likewise,
I’d sure feel a teacher mighty proud.
If I could charm this child when twilight lingers
Around the fire with tales of long ago;
Of heroes bold who stood four-square for freedom —
At such a school young Pearse felt freedom’s glow.
If I could preach a love of our sireland,
As the mother Pearse did with her little ones.
Then I should be a teacher of the mothers,
Who do forget that Ireland needs her sons.
If I could tell this child what Pearse endured
To free such parents from slave-mind plague;
Then I might say another Pearse was moulded
To snatch our lost ideals from the grave.
LTBHIN Nic GABHANT~
OUR ULSTER COVENANT
The day is fast approaching and the hour is drawing nigh,
Republicans are encroaching so cunningly and sly,
But we’ll follow in the footsteps of those men so adamant,
And keep the rights our fathers gained and our Ulster Covenant.
Let foes of Britain tremble when they think of Ulster’s sons,
Who never will surrender or flee from Rebel guns.
We can depend on one another but not in our Government
They have sold out to those that hate us and our Ulster Covenant.
Let them think on Gallant Derry’s Walls and on Aughrim’s plains, Where crimson blood by valiant hands each valley deeply stained. Likewise with Enniskillen our ancestors did cement, And sealed in blood our bill of rights and our Ulster Covenant.
Strong men will come to lead us, there’ll be no traitors in our rear, The Loyalists of Ulster no danger need they fear, Our religion is our bulwark and our cause is Heaven-sent, God bless Carson and Craigavon and our Ulster Covenant.
by “THE OLD VOLUNTEER”
But impacting us more deeply than the glories we choose to remember within our political groupings, are the chosen traumas. The traumas of our section of the community – the loss of people, land or privilege. The humiliation of the group, the suffering deliberately inflicted on our group, our people. We choose to remember the traumas as they impacted us and our people. These chosen traumas are often iconic in the memory of the people of Northern Ireland but they may also be individual, less iconic, except to us of course – the memory of an individual killed or injured on days when so many things were happening that the news reporting was scant. And as we struggle to keep the memory of that loved one alive, as we seek to honour them with memory, somehow the others slip from our minds and we have chosen the trauma closest to us, closest to our community.
Chosen traumas that speak of our humiliation and suffering and of what has been done to us by others – Enniskillen, Omagh, Bloody Sunday, Bloody Friday, Miami Show band, La Mon, Loughgall, Kingsmills, Teeban, Claudy, Ballymurphy, Ardboe and many more.
We have our chosen glories and our chosen traumas and the memory of them competes with the memory of the chosen glories and traumas of the others with whom we share the same space of land, the same future, and the same dream for something better than we have known. It is also true to say that these memories continue to make us and remake us for from the vantage point of each new day we can come to see them differently. No more eminent person than Audrey Hepburn said:
Living is like tearing through a museum. Not until later do you really start absorbing what you saw, thinking about it, looking it up in a book, and remembering – because you can’t take it all in at once.
So we tear through the museum of our lives, absorbing in new ways the things that have happened to us, because we can’t take it all in at once. As we tear through the museum of our lives we discover that if we are not to spend the day looking at the artefacts then we have to hold all the more tightly to the hand of those children who are growing up and whose museum we are creating. They will ask us – What does that mean? What is that about? Who was that Daddy? What happened to her Mummy? In the asking they remind us again and again that we are making their museums with the lives we lead today, just as someone made the museums which we tear through day after day and absorb in ever new ways.
Our own memories compete with one another to make us who we are. The memories across a divided community compete with each other either to keep us on parallel and opposing tracks or to bring us to the courage to listen to each other and make a different, more inclusive, more liberating and peaceful museum of memories for the coming generations. Competition sets people against each other, establishes boundaries between people and separates them from one another. But John Donne’s famous words:
No man is an Island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
(and I presume he meant women as well!) remind us that we do not live our lives in isolation. None of us are complete in ourselves and we do nothing that does not have some effect on others. When we compete what we do and how we aim for, what we want, has an equal impact on others, on those who have memories which compete with our memories. Competition can only take us so far, give a certain degree of satisfaction. At some point, and today is possibly one of those days, we stop and wonder how to go on in light of the memories, competing memories which have made us what we are and have constructed the museums of our individual and community lives. We stop and we wonder how to go on and wonder too what is the right way to go about things. That wondering leads us to consider co-operation instead of competition, listening alongside speaking.
Co-operation with each other does not mean that all competition will be gone. In fact, co-operation requires that we begin by laying the competition out on the table – our chosen glories alongside their chosen glories, our chosen traumas alongside their chosen traumas. For none of us exists without each other – every them needs an us and every us needs a them. What they did to me makes my chosen trauma. What I did to them makes my chosen glories. What people from my side of the community did to their side of the community makes my history of chosen glories and what their side of the community did to my side of the community makes my history of chosen traumas. Co-operation requires that we hear these things from one another and facing that takes courage.
Maya Angelou was born in 1928 in St Louis Missouri and she was raised in Arkansas where, as a black woman, she experienced the brutality of racial discrimination coupled with discrimination and brutality against her as a woman. The brutality experienced in her life and in the lives of those around her is reflected in her writing. Today she is a celebrated poet, novelist, actress and civil rights activist. Angelou has written:
History, despite it’s wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.
She does not write lightly about courage and she is acutely aware that history does not change and that the wrenching pain remains. But she speaks of courage, the kind of courage it takes to grasp hold of the hands of the generations ahead of us in order that we can co-operate, even with our competing histories, co-operate to make better museums for those future generations to tear through.
Angelou also acknowledges the importance of being heard. In setting out our competing stories, our chosen glories and traumas, for each other, we want to tell how it has been, we want to tell what has been done to us, we want to tell about the loss and the ongoing suffering and we want to speak about what was changed for ever in our lives. We want to speak but perhaps more importantly we want to be heard. Angelou writes:
There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story in you.
An untold story is one that is not heard when we both want and need that story to be heard. We are saying to each other – How can I co-operate with you if you do not see and hear what you have done to me? And even as we say that to each other we begin to make the courageous journey from competition to co-operation for a better future.
Our individual and private memories – we pause with them today and we tear through our own private museums. We honour those who have gone ahead of us for we love them. We honour ourselves as we recall what we have survived. Our private reflections are reflected in our society too – a place where memories compete. Those competing memories need to be checked by the will to co-operate and by our taking the hands of future generations.
On every Day of Reflection we face the choice of how to go on and our private rememberings make us bold to call again for the leadership and action at every level of society that will make different memories for our children and for our children’s children. On this day, as on every day, we stand facing two roads ahead and on both roads we will bring our memories with us. But they are nevertheless two different roads – on one we choose only to compete with each other and to bring our memories to support our competition. On the other we bring our memories to enlighten us to free our children from the dark museums of the past into a place where new memories are made beyond our chosen traumas and beyond our chosen glories. We cannot travel both roads. In his poem The Road Not Taken, Robert Frost identifies the two roads ahead, both of which cannot be taken:
Two roads diverged in a yellow road,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveller, long I stood
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Standing there looking at the two possible roads ahead Frost examines them – how green they look, how twisty they seem, how worn the paths. He even wonders to himself if he might try one out and then come back and take the other. But even as he wonders he realizes that this is it – this is the moment to choose and there will be no going back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
The road we choose as we remember today can make all the difference.