Page and I watched the movie “Youth” recently. In fact, we watched it on the week of my birthday, which was somewhat unnerving since it is a movie about aging (the title notwithstanding). It stars Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, and Jane Fonda as people of years who cannot undo what has been done. One character, a famous actress, is simply trying to cash in on a storied career to earn sufficient funds to move to Miami and call it quits. Another, a brilliant composer/conductor, has become “apathetic” (his word) and no longer feels he can contribute to the world around him. The third has a desire to create one more film, one last shot at crafting his legacy as a director. Each has memories that bring emotional pain, recollections of moments they cannot retrieve and decisions they cannot undo.
One of the brilliant themes of the movie is memory. Caine’s and Keitel’s characters struggle with the fact that they cannot remember the faces or voices of their parents or even large segments of their childhood. And yet they, plus Fonda’s character, remember moments of personal interactions or losses across the years which they would prefer to forget.
At some point, all of us have to deal with our memories and what to do with them. We do not have the power to simply discard painful ones (or to intentionally forget). But, we do have the power to assess and interpret. We have the freedom to use our memories as we choose (since, obviously, they are distinctively “our” memories). Often some are sources of guilt. That can be a debilitating emotion … but it can be an instructive one instead, if we so choose.
Recalling harmful words said (or left unsaid) or deeds done (or left undone) can be almost heart-breaking. We fret and fear in the night, wishing we could turn back the clock and have a second chance to get this-or-that right. But, clocks never move in reverse. So, our options are either to be immobilized by guilt or to learn from the past in order to construct a more meaningful future.
Do I remember harsh words I once spoke that brought hurt to another? Can that not be an educational tool, equipping me to speak more compassionately in the future so as to enhance relationships rather than to damage them? Do I remember occasions when I was impatient or too busy to be caringly present for someone who needed me? Can that not also be a tool of learning, teaching me how to be more authentically present for those in need in the future? Can bad memories not help produce good futures? If such is not the case, then our histories become sources of pain (much as they were, to a great extent, for the lead characters in “Youth”). However, a verse from the wisdom literature of Hebrew Scripture says: “As we think in our hearts, so we are.” (Proverbs 23:7) If in our hearts we think, ponder, consider, and assess things past, we can become stronger and better persons in the future. Often one of life’s great lessons is simply learning what not to do. That is surely learned by reflecting on previous missteps and learning the lessons only painful memories have to teach.
“Youth,” a movie about aging, is beautifully acted. The music (by David Lang) is ethereal and haunting. But maybe the most important thing about it is how it makes us walk away reflecting on what to do with our memories – whether to allow them to entrap us or equip us.