Who's bound for rest from labor and evil?
Who's bound for the plain of Lethe?
-"Frogs," Aristophanes, lines 185-86a
Cold, gray clouds blanket North Texas this morning. I sit here remembering that awful day one year ago (see here). The ancient Greeks believed in a river of forgetfulness (Lethe) that flowed through a plain in Hades. There, according to their mythology, the dead drank and forgot all that had transpired in their lives. Different Greeks regarded Lethe's waters differently. A few inscriptions present Lethe as a hazard to be avoided, urging instead that the deceased should drink from rival stream Mnemosyne (remembrance) to achieve omniscience.
But here Aristophanes reveals to us the train of thought by which some Greeks WELCOMED a draught of utter forgetfulness. Certainly in the face of trauma and its aftermath, forgetfulness is a tempting offer. To draw from a cultural expression of more recent vintage:
I've just been down the gullet of an interstellar cockroach. That's one of a hundred memories I don't want
-K, in "Men in Black," requesting to have his memory erased
Part of me would love to forget. Part of me feels an obligation to remember—to honor Nick Scroggs's life by remembering. We Americans have an entire holiday devoted to remembering, and Memorial Day is particularly directed toward what must be the survivors' traumatic recollections of the often gruesome deaths of young people at war. You live through a moment like that, and you think, "This cannot be forgotten. Someone must remember this. I must remember this."
Charon's (the character speaking in Aristophanes's quote above) sentiment is fatalistic and negative. It arises from a thoroughly negative appraisal of human life on earth and an utterly hopeless appraisal of the afterlife's ability to make life to have been worthwhile. Lethe is the ultimate surrender to pain and evil, relinquishing life to them forever.
The Christian concept is a thoroughgoing contrast: "Momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison" (2 Corinthians 4:17). God's promise is not just to bring "extra innings" to extend life beyond here (perhaps to try to turn things around in the end in an Ebenezer Scrooge sort of way), nor is it a suggestion that you might be able to forget the "labor and evil" of this life and wind up with a clean slate. Rather, the Christian hope is that God ultimately makes all of this makes sense somehow and amount to an overarching good. How does that work? Well, if I knew that, then God would have already made sense of it here! But I cling to the promise of God that affliction is indeed productive, and that eternal good wins so decisively as to put an end to "all comparison" even between the two.
It's not that hard to believe, for I've seen good come out of difficult circumstances with my own eyes. It is almost a universal truth that the best person you know is not the person who has enjoyed the easiest life. If it happens partially and disproportionately here, what might be done with it in eternity?
And therefore, I have placed my hope not in some promise that time will enable me to forget—I do not have much confidence in that ever happening. Instead, I trust in the Lord Jesus Christ that this whole ordeal, although not ever possibly a good thing in and of itself, will result in good things in this world: In teenagers a little more careful with their lives because of it, in a deeper compassion and empathy in my own life, in a pointing of people to the finitude of life and the inevitability of eternity. May the God of Redemption redeem it.
Gray clouds and rainy skies, after all, water the earth and bring forth all of its verdant fecundity. Winter gives us the glories of Spring. Death gave way to resurrection. There is hope, and in hope there is comfort.
But on a gray morning, even though we have hope for the sunlight at last, would you join me and take a moment to pray for a family in Texas somehow marking on this day the end of a first year without their son?