The 2000 movie, Memento is a brilliant alternative-reality thriller by director Christopher Nolan of The Matrix fame. Like The Matrix, Memento explores themes which have a compelling metaphysical message: Life is not as it appears.
The film begins with a revenge killing, and then goes back in time from that point, exploring the events which led up to the killing. The killer, Leo, has a rare mental disease which makes him unable to create new memories. He only remembers events before the night he was violently attacked years ago and his wife was murdered. Every few hours, Leo looses all his short term memory (except the pre-attack memories) and has to start piecing together the mystery of his existence from scratch. To cope with his mental illness, Leo tattoos instructions to himself on his body, takes pictures and notates them with messages to his future self. Each time he looses his memory, Leo reembarks upon the great mission emblazoned in a giant tattoo across his chest: “John G. raped and murdered my wife. Find him and kill him.”
“Always Retain in Remembrance”
Like Leo, we all suffer from varying degrees of forgetfulness. This is particularly true with regard to spiritual knowledge. We have all experienced moving epiphanies, moments of spiritual clarity, commitment, and perfect understanding. But soon these moments of clarity vanish like the morning dew, and we we forget they ever happened.
In the film, Leo, who has a disciplined personality, is very careful to document all of his experience for future reference. So also, in our spiritual life, we try to keep the things of the spirit “in remembrance” by reading our scriptures daily, praying daily, going to church weekly. Rarely do we learn anything “new” as we study, pray, and worship. But the whole point of doing these daily exercises is not to learn new things, but to fight against our constant state of forgetfulness. As Alma says in the Book of Mormon, we are to “always retain in remembrance” our sins and reliance on God. He tells, if we have felt in the past that we could “sing the song of redeeming love, Can you fee so NOW?” Alma asks?
It is inspiring to watch Leo fight against his constant state of forgetfulness in a disciplined and organized way. I was inspired to make more notes to myself in daily life, and to stop taking my memory for granted. This has helped me be more organized, at least for the short time I’ve been practicing it.
The Purpose of Life
Leo’s continual state of forgetfulness can also be interpreted broadly, as our birth on earth. Consider that our life on earth is just one small event in our eternal progression. Yet, when we are born, we forget everything that came before this life, all we learned, and all we had become. Like Leo, who wakes up each day in a foreign reality, we wake up on a foreign planet and must piece together the meaning of it all. Do we get caught up in the moment, or can we perceive that there is some kind of greater mission and path that we are on?
In the film, Leo’s great hunger is to have a mission. To have meaning and purpose in a life even when he can’t remember anything that has happened to him in years. The need for purpose is universal. We all need a mission in life. Most “self help” programs start with finding some kind of ideal or life purpose. This is particularly important when we dwell in a state of constant forgetfulness. There are so many distractions in life, so many ways to get lost down hidden paths.
The most profound message of the film is about the power of self-deception. As we progress in the film we discover that Leo has the power to make deliberately deceptive decisions in order to protect his own psychological and emotional needs.
This happens universally in our lives as well. BYU philosophy professor Terry Warner addresses this topic in depth in his beautiful book Bonds that Make Us Free.
“When we are stuck, unable to see our way forward, we think it’s because darkness shrouds our pathway. In reality, the darkness is in ourselves…In self-betrayal our moral sense or conscience becomes untrustworthy. In the darkness of our self-absorbed, suspicious thoughts and feelings, we cannot discern the way forward.”
I highly recommend this movie. It is intense, mind-bending, and spiritually profound. However, it is rated R, and it is pervasively dark and suspenseful, with a touch of horror. But well worth it, if you have the stomach for it.