Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a poem titled “The Arrow and The Song,” and it goes like this:
Imagine meeting up with a friend only to find that you couldn’t remember anything about them—not their name, nor where they were born, nor why you should have any reason for knowing them. If this were to happen, you would not feel that you were meeting a friend, but rather, a stranger, and rightly so. Friendship is fueled by our memories. It is our memories that tell us what our friends mean to us, and who they are to us. Our memories shape the way that we see them, for better or worse, because living inside our memory is a part of them that we have preserved. The same can be said of us in the memories of our friends. It is as if we have each taken a bowl and filled it up with a part of ourselves and then poured it out into the cauldrons of our friends’ memories.
This act of pouring ourselves out is often not just a one time occurrence. For those who are closest to us, it is a continual act. In my essay Holloways, I told a story about a certain friend of mine and used that story to show how friendship hollows us out and fills us up with the life of another. Another way to think about this is by considering the fact that one person’s life is another person’s memory. Consider what Charles R. Swindoll had to say about it:
Each day of our lives we make deposits in the memory banks of our children.
Looking at this concept from the perspective of the relationship between a child and an elder family member is a great way to consider it. Think of the way a child views the world and the people who are in it, especially the people in that child’s own family. To the child, a parent is there for them, nurturing them, crafting them into the person they will become. In the child’s mind, taking care of them is their parents’ top priority in life. It’s not until children grow older that they gradually start to realize that their parents have lives of their own, lives that went on long before the children ever came into being, and lives that are still going on every day. And yet, children are not wrong for thinking that they should be a high priority for their parents.
This has struck me much harder ever since I first became a father. I think back on my own childhood memories, trying to remember as far back as I can, and it makes me realize that everything I do is being stored inside the memory of my children. All of my words and my actions are contributing to the image that they are creating of me in their memories. As time goes on, that image will continue to shape the way that they see me and the way that they interact with me.
What this means for our daily interactions is that we are not merely standing in one place while those around us are standing in another. We are crossing over into the lives of others, playing characters in their own personal stories, shaping the way that they see the world, influencing the decisions that they make. The words that we speak are not simply mists that go our from us and disappear without any consequence—they are, as Longfellow said, like arrows that fly beyond our sight and land in places where they will remain until they are forcibly removed, and thus forgotten. And yet, as is true of an arrow that strikes a tree, the mark remains even after the removal. In the same way, our words are songs that find their way into the hearts of those who hear them. A passing word that we utter might eventually become someone’s song in the night.
What Longfellow’s poem says to me is that our lives do not depend on our own strength, or our own understanding, or even our own memory. They pierce the lives of those around us, and occasionally, they sink down into the storehouse of someone’s memory, for better or for worse. To be remembered by someone is not simply to be chosen—it comes from leaving a stamp on someone, from pouring yourself out into another person, and from making a deposit into the treasury of someone’s memory.