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Memorials, Monuments, Meaning, and Movements

Updated: May 26, 2019

What comes to your mind as ‘Memorial’ Day 3-day weekend lands on the calendar?

If you are a military family you know the reality. If you know someone who lost their life while fighting in one of too many wars you know the reality. The ‘holiday’ came about after the Civil War that cost us more lives than any other war!

If you are human, a part of the American culture, then your memory will quickly bring forth the images of summer, barbecues, parades, sun in the fun and ‘Memorial Day 3-day event Sales”!

What we re-call from our memory is based upon the cues in our present environment that make sense from our historical experience.

The brain is a history making machine, it bases the present on how the past experience compartmentalizes current information. It’s all a brilliant bio-logic to save us metabolic energy so we know what’s what, and remember where the lion was the last time so we can avoid strolling down that lane today. The problem lies in the lack of information and mis-information.

Though this article is not a political commentary, we can certainly apply this template of memory information processing to the divide in our nation. We can’t see what we can’t see. This is the blind spot that has been researched and documented in our brain’s cognitive function leading to our biases that are ‘unconscious / implicit’.

Nothing personal, just basic bio-logic of brain. No matter what you say you believe, “some of my best friends are women . . .”, cultural inculcation has constructed memory that will prove your best intentions wrong. Like Desmond Tutu’s, (South African Civil Rights leader ending Apartheid), story of being on a plane flown by black pilots, which he cheered as movement forward in anti-apartheid, but his body betrayed him when he became anxious during the turbulent flight, wondering about what was happening to him, he dredged from his automatic ‘unconscious’ bio-logic-al reaction to perceived threat, that his deep-seated, culturally imbued, memory of black = less than, was activated to perceive black as the threat.

To his dismay he lacked confidence that the black pilots were competent enough and wished there was a white pilot to navigate the rough air currents to bring them to safety.

The power of our memory, what we memorialize – bring back into memory, what we raise up, as in monuments of a society and of our mind, cues which memory we will perpetuate, and from there, through our limited biology, we will derive meanings that limit us all. You can’t understand history by only recalling one part of that history. Which ‘monuments’ we take down, which ones we put up, both literally and metaphorically, like the monuments in our own minds relative to our emotional history, will determine what we pay attention to repeatedly and thus shape the way we perceive and construct our meaning.

Whether it’s Robert E. Lee or Frederick Douglass that we memorialize, the monument is a cue to remember, what to remember will be dependent upon the value in that situational context. That reminder fixates a point in time, decides for us what to pay attention to, which part of history to Re-Call, which then points our mind in a direction of meaning, and subsequent action. This too for our emotional ruminations, the brain making predominate the negative to save our dear biological lives at the cost of our conscious living.

The wonderful news is that this is part of our operating system so to speak. It is natural to our human body and brain. It is not personal, though we make it so.

I was traveling the country during the heated 2016 presidential campaign teaching seminars about current science of attentional neurobiology relative to the MBSR program, (mindfulness-based stress reduction), finding myself in middle America, right in the middle of our divide. It was my hope to help us make good use of the reality that we are all biased, it’s the way we are made, we don’t need to be ashamed or defend, so we might become humbled enough to find our confidence to use our consciousness. We are more than biology, we have an ability to reflect, to slow the process down enough, to relate to the circumstances in front of us, naming our limitation – I can’t see what I can’t see, can you help me? Bit by bit we can see the whole elephant!

I remember one seminar participant, (though I know there were many), that was offended after playing with well-known thought experiment: a father and son get in car crash, father dies on impact, son is flown to hospital and is brought to surgery immediately, the surgeon enters and states, ‘I cannot operate, that is my son”, how is this possible? If you already know the answer it is because you have been helped to see. If you, like me, and many others, who believe in the rights and equality of all, are more commonly humbled by the fact that you don’t have in your ‘drop down menu’ a woman as surgeon option! It is, of course, his mother. This example overused now begs us to find new ways to help us see our design flaw. If you really want to test yourself, enjoy the implicit bias test (social psychology test designed to detect the strength of a person's automatic association between mental representations of objects (concepts) in memory, (Wikipedia contributors. (2019, May 16). Implicit-association test. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 17:46, May 25, 2019, from

It’s worth the while to ask just what are you Memorializing? What Monument is in the forefront of your mind? What Meaning does it hold? What Movement does it incline you toward?

Imagine the meeting, the roundtable of this memory, what does it construct? Does it block or bridge your next best behavior? Who is missing at the table? What view do you need to get the whole picture?


For my father, Harry Angel Renz, WWII veteran

if you'd like to explore in direct experience, ( v cognitive understanding), how you can interrupt the automaticity of memory in a awareness practice try on this guided video practice


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