Healing traumatic memories — and common misunderstandings about this.
The enemy came to an end in everlasting ruins; their cities you rooted out;
the very memory of them has perished. (Psalms 9:6)
In the New Heavens and Earth, we will be completely healed of everything and anything hurtful. That has to also include being healed of painful memories which are the result of the trauma of living in a fallen world. How much will we recall about this present life? I don’t know. But however it plays out, there will never again be one of those painful, anguishing remembrances pop into our mind.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:1-4)
I was hiking through the woods the other day and came onto a place up in the hills that jogged a memory. I recalled that I had seen a snake there the summer before. We don’t have any poisonous snakes here, but I don’t like any kind of snake. Anyway, it struck me that here I was walking along and had not even thought about that snake for a long while and all of a sudden, bam! — there is the memory in my head. It’s like something called it up out of a database where it had been filed out of sight and seemingly out of mind.
But it wasn’t out of mind after all, was it? I mean, it had to have been there in my head all the time in order for me to remember it. And yet it was inactive and hidden until something activated it, and I remembered. It’s a good thing that our brains have this ability to file memories in the “inactive” folder or else we would go insane. We would be flooded with active memories, like watching a thousand movies at the same time. I wonder if there is any type of mental illness that this might be characteristic of?
So this line of thought continued. If the memory of that encounter with the snake had been in my mind all the time, though I didn’t realize it, then what if the snake had caused me some kind of trauma? What if it had been a cobra? What if I had been bitten and nearly died from the venom? Interesting then that there seems to be a “filing hierarchy” in our minds when it comes to memories, right? I mean, I no doubt would have “remembered” a cobra encounter far more actively and more often than with this run-in with a harmless garden type snake.
I continued then to mull this over. Trauma (among other things, including the good things we experience) creates memories. Our brains apparently have a tremendous, virtually unlimited capacity for the storage of memories (did you see the movie Inside Out?)…good and bad. And, as we have already said, many of those memories are filed in the “inactive, hidden, out of sight” department of our brain. They seem to be gone, but they aren’t gone. I have memories of many people who I worked with over 40 years ago, but haven’t even thought of them at all — in fact I had “forgotten” them — until I saw their name on Facebook or someone else made mention of them. “Oh yeah, I remember that guy now.” Memories, you see.
So, let’s apply this dynamic to abuse victims and other traumatized people and the nonsense “counseling” they are so often given.
Abuse is remembered. The sights, the smells, the sounds, the feelings of it. All remembered, filed, often moved into the “inactive” drawer of our mind’s file system. As time goes by our minds apparently know how to shuffle more recent memories into the “happened further in the past” drawer where they become less and less visible to our consciousness. But they are there. They ARE there. Waiting to be brought to life in a moment. Sometimes even being remembered without us realizing we are remembering. That really gets sticky to sort out, doesn’t it? “Why am I feeling this way in response to what that guy just said/did?”
Abuse is remembered. And with this truth in mind now, consider how stupid, misguided, and even evil it is to tell an abuse victim the standard things they are being told — and told so often in their churches:
- You are guilty of unforgiveness because you won’t just forget it and move on
- That is all in the past. Stop dwelling on it
- You need to reconcile with the person who hurt you
- You are keeping a record of wrongs
See it? The memories are there. And in many aspects of our lives, it is very, very good that those memories are there else we would not be able to call out for justice, the guilty would get off scot free, and we would not be able to be cautious the next time our enemy comes our way. “Have we met before?”
Trauma creates memories that are in themselves traumatic. Coming to salvation and new birth in Christ does not mean all our hurtful memories are instantly erased, nor should they be. Not just yet. The good news is that the Lord has already begun His work of healing our minds and ultimately that healing will be complete. And I think that the nature of the healing He effects in us is more than just a mere erasure of our memory storage. I think that somehow we will still remember, but we will never again be traumatized by what we remember.
Until then, let’s not be so foolish and cruel to tell victims to start living as if their memories don’t exist.