I take a lot of pictures. I am old enough to have spent thousands of dollars on film and photo developing over three decades, from my late single digits up until about the age of 35. While I was an early adopter of the iPhone in June 2007, my film photos trailed off almost four years before that, when I purchased my first digital camera of any quality. Without the expense of film and developing, the number of photos I have taken has vastly increased, but I have printed very few.
I have become obsessed with backing up my digital photos, however, and copies exist on our iMac, a backup drive attached to the iMac, my iPhone, my iPad, Apple’s iCloud service, and Google Photos. Many, of course, are also on Facebook (though, for a variety of reasons, I don’t consider that a reliable backup). My current count of digital photos is 53,874, and that’s after a recent effort to clear out thousands of duplicates, near duplicates, and misfires.
I go through periods when I force myself to quit snapping photos of significant events or of places that we visit so that I can live entirely in the moment, but those phases never last. While I always try to strike a balance, there’s a reason I am an obsessive photo-taker (though hardly a photographer, since that implies a level of skill that, alas, I’ve never developed). My photos are my visual memory. My aphantasia, my complete inability to visualize anything outside of dreams (which I have discussed in recent columns), has left me, the older I get, with a fear of losing forever the faces and places most dear to me.
Throughout much of the 20th century, it was not unusual for a young man to carry a photo of the girl he loved in his wallet. (Today, he can, and usually does, keep many such photos on his iPhone.) For me, it was a necessity, and not simply a sign of devotion. In the summers of our college years, and in the two years between our graduation from Michigan State and our marriage, Amy’s high-school graduation picture kept her present to me in a way that (I did not realize at the time) most other young men did not need.
But since the fact that I could not (and still cannot) visualize Amy’s face is not a problem inherent to her but to me, the same obviously applies to all other women I have known. There’s something comforting about letting old girlfriends and passing crushes literally fade away, and being able to give my full attention to the woman who consented (God knows why) to be my wife and the mother of our children. Midlife crises, I suspect, are rather rare among those afflicted with aphantasia. Living in the present, though, is quite easy, since the past is dark, and so is the future.
When my son Jacob first brought aphantasia to my attention a little over a year ago, my initial bewilderment at the reality that virtually everyone else can (with more or less clarity) conjure up actual images was followed by a bit of despair. Why had God allowed me to be afflicted with this? Today, I look at it a bit differently: I live a charmed life.
What could be better than to wake up every morning in the same house, to walk the same streets, to see the same sights, to meet the same people, and yet, in a very real sense, to experience them all once again for the first time? I smile a lot, and always have, and now I know why. I’m Bill Murray in the latter part of Groundhog Day, with the difference that time hasn’t stopped for me.
It’s all too easy to live life caught between the regrets of the past and fantasies of the future. I can’t visualize either, but I fall prey to regrets and fantasies, too. That’s not the way we were meant to live, however, and the serpent is the only one who wins when we let ourselves be pulled out of the moment with promises of a future that can never be, or despair over a past that can only truly be healed by the saving work of Christ Himself.
Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they? . . . But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you. Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself.
“All that was in the past,” Joseph Stalin once told Winston Churchill, “and the past belongs to God.” Which just goes to prove that you can take the dictator out of the seminary, but you can’t erase the law of God from even the most depraved of human hearts.
First published in the May 2019 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.