Count blessings and find a path to happiness

Sunday, September 30, 2012

During a recent stay in a bed-and-breakfast in St. Mary's, Mo., the proprietor said the following to my wife and me: "On a certain day in April, for many years, people came from all around to this hilltop to watch the migration of the passenger pigeons. They filled the sky. It must have been something to behold. Of course, the passenger pigeon is now extinct."

Well, that was news to me. The part about extinction, that is. How could I have reached my chronological age and be unaware of the total absence of this species of birds? At one time, according to Wikipedia (an untrustworthy source), there were as many as 5 billion passenger pigeons in North America until the arrival of Europeans upon the continent. Deforestation and the accompanying conversion of habitat to farming plus hunting put the bird on the path to annihilation. It is said the last passenger pigeon in the world, named Martha, died in the Cincinnati Zoo on Sept. 1, 1914.

It's possible I never knew this information. Just as likely, however, is that I did know and simply forgot it. Forgetfulness is one of the hazards of every era.

My next sentences are my own supposition, not based on research. If one of my students at Southeast Missouri State University did what I am about to do, I would chastise him or her for lack of proper citation. I plunge ahead, though, heedless of the danger.

My suspicion is that our brains never forget anything. Every encounter is somehow imprinted in our cerebral cortex. When we forget, we cannot summon in real time a certain experience or a particular piece of information. The mind traps everything, but the mechanism to bring it to consciousness frequently misfires. Dementia, of course, can create this disconnect. Absent dementia, however, it is clear there are times that we fail to remember. And we're not sure why.

"I am the Lord thy God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery." In reading the Hebrew Bible, which Christians call the Old Testament, we find these words again and again. A discerning reader might ask why this sentence appears with such repetitiveness. The bargaining, the series of plagues, the angel of death passing over door posts covered in lamb's blood (Passover), the capitulation of Pharaoh, the flight from Egypt, Pharaoh's change of heart, the protection of God in the wilderness, the provision of God in the desert, the receipt of the commandments at Sinai, the eventual crossing into Canaan, the Promised Land -- all of foregoing comprises the seminal Jewish experience. It cannot be forgotten. It must not be forgotten. Yet it was. Through the prophets, God reminded the people of their own history. Not once but many times.

There is a danger to forgetfulness, the peril of every eon. The Israelites forgot God's protection and provision. They muttered to Moses in the Wilderness of Sin: "Did you bring us into the desert to kill us?" (Exodus 17:3) The failure of the rank-and-file Israelite to remember what God had done calls to mind the timeworn yet deadly accurate adage: "I know you've done a lot for me, but what have you done for me lately?"

Here at Chateau Girardeau, I sat down recently right next to Trish in our Bistro. We had lunch at adjoining tables. I asked her, "How are you?" Trish replied, "I am blessed." She answered this way because she remembers. In the midst of temporal pain and suffering, Trish can call to her conscious mind the great good in her life. I told my lunch companion that I do not hear people say they feel blessed very often. Maybe it is that we forget the words of the hymn, "That though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet."

Fight the hazard of forgetfulness. Count your blessings and find a path to happiness.

Dr. Jeff Long teaches religious studies at Southeast Missouri State University and is administrator of the Foundation and assistant director of marketing at Chateau Girardeau Retirement Community.

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