The earliest memories — the act is lost in oblivion, but the metaphor remains

One of the earliest memories from my childhood in Stockholm is not about things I did or the outer world I encountered, but about a metaphorical image I associate with my evening prayer — “Gud som haver barnen kär” (God, who holds the children dear):

Gud som haver barnen kär,
se till mig som liten är.
Vart jag mig i världen vänder
står min lycka i Guds händer.
Lyckan kommer, lyckan går,
den Gud älskar, lyckan får.

(God who holds the children dear,  care for me who is so small. Wherever I go in the world, my happiness lies in the hand of God. Happiness comes, happiness goes, those whom God loves will be happy.)

Every word of this very popular Swedish childrens prayer is forever imprinted in my mind; probably because I seem to have said it every evening, from early childhood up to the age of nine, and maybe even later (“Thomas and I alone at home. He went to bed reasonably early and we read God Who Holds the Children Dear”, wrote my grandfather in his diary in March 1956).

But I don’t have any memories whatsoever of saying the prayer. I don’t remember actually saying the words, or the social situation, or the time and place.

What I do remember, however, when I repeat these words today, is the image that went through my mind 60-65 years ago when I said the prayer.

Not our iron - but it could have been.

Not our iron – but it could have been.

When I say the penultimate line “Lyckan kommer, lyckan går” (Happiness comes, happiness goes) today, I still remember having the inner image of an iron moving forth and back on an ironing board: Iron comes, iron goes.

Ironing

(an anonymous German woman)

I probably didn’t understand what the word ‘lycka’ (happiness) meant. But ‘coming’ and ‘going’ were both familiar words; and ironing was an everyday household chore (for the women in our family) in the early 1950s, and was an easily available and appropriate metaphor for how something could ‘come’ and ‘go’.

I guess children often use physical metaphors when trying to conceptualise abstract concepts, when having books read to them, or hearing songs or prayers. But what interests me in this case is the memory aspects — namely, that it is the metaphorical image evoked by saying the prayer that has remained in my mind until this very day, whereas the memory of the actual, situated everynight act of praying seems to be lost in time.

Originally posted on Facebook (1 November 2015), this post generated comments from Inge-Bert Täljedal, Kenneth Caneva and Signe Hegelund:

Inge-Bert Täljedal: Interesting. The account of your childhood memory with its focus on the verbal and non-verbal symbolic representations of “come” and “go” sounds pretty Freudian to me. Perhaps a good and efficient working with anxiety linked to separation?
Inge-Bert Täljedal: […]By the way, I think your translation of the children’s prayer was a bit in error. Although, admittedly, the Swedish text is ambiguous, it would be blasmephous to insinuate that God does not love all children. So, instead of “those whom God loves” it should probably be “those who love God”… By the way, probably because of this language ambiguity some families used another last line of the prayer: “Gud förbliver Fader vår” (“God remains our Father.) For some reason I guess that your version was popular in so-called “free” or “dissenter” church circles, while the verision mentioned here was more popular in Church of Sweden circles. But I am not sure. At any rate, you must not teach children that some children are not loved.
Thomas Söderqvist: This is a really difficult one, Inge-Bert. I’ve been thinking a lot about this prayer. Shall the phrase “Den Gud älskar lyckan får” be understood as “De barn som älskar Gud blir lyckliga” (kids who love God will be happy) or as “De barn som Gud älskar blir lyckliga” (kids whom God loves will be happy). The second option is terrible: there may be some children that God doesn’t love for one reason or the other; and am I one of those? But the first option is terrible too: you have to *achieve* happiness of God in order to be happy; those of us who cannot pull ourselves together to love God will thus be doomed. What a terrible prayer to indoctrine a 3-4 year old with. No wonder I was thinking of ironing instead. What do my religious friends Lisbet, Jes and Signe say to this dilemma? (And by the way, my anxiety was set in motion before I wrote about the ‘come-go’ motif.)
Inge-Bert Täljedal: Well, I agree that this classic children’s prayer is questionable even from a Christian point of view, because it invites overly neurotic brooding. If, for the sake of argument, one wants to defend it against the accusation of being outright heretic, first of all the second interpretation (whom God loves) must be ruled out as insinuating that God does not love all children. Moreover, the first one should not be interpreted as meaning that loving God is a prerequisite for happiness. Rather it is a pious assertion that those who love God (but not necessarily only they) become happy, which, however, is also a questionable thing to say to a child. I mean, what is “happiness” and what does it, in a child’s vocabulary and fantasy, mean to “love God”? So, on all interpretations this prayer is questionable, but worse on some than on others. Even from a Christian perspective, that is.
Kenneth L. Caneva: Yes, interesting. Whether your explanation is accurate I’m not qualified to say. That you forgot the events themselves is, to me, unfathomable.
Thomas Söderqvist: Well, I don’t think I have actually produced an explanation yet – I’ve only described a phenomenon waiting for its explanation.
Signe Hegelund: Memoria er jo den 4 af de såkaldet ” fem forarbejdningsfaser” eller PARTES i den klassiske retorik. Et af de hjælpemidler der anvendes er netop at forbinde det sproglige med noget visuelt. Hos os er det jo ofte lidt større tekstmængder det drejer sig om – og en noget kortere indøvelsesfase – og derfor har det at anbringe informationerne i en specifik rækkefølge i et kendt “landskab” været hyppigt brugt. I den moderne Sherlock Holmes bruger både Sherlock selv og skurken Magnusson forøvrigt den teknik. Så: du har brugt den metode der tilsyneladende ligger lige for når man skal lære at memorere informationer.
Thomas Söderqvist: Interessant. Bortset fra at jeg som 3-5-årig nok ikke hade brug for at memorere teksten. Bønteksten sad der nok alligevel, på samme måde som mine børn i tidlig alder kunne gengive Halfdan Rasmussens rim ordret uden at forstå særligt meget af indholdet. Så med respekt for at det er interessant i en retorik-sammenhæng, så jeg tror faktisk ikke det var tale om en ubevidst mnemoteknik. Jeg tror snarere det var tale om en tilfældig association mellem “lykken kommer/går” og “strygjernet kommer/går” — det som behøver forklares er hvorfor kun metaforen lever i min hukommelse, og ikke bedesituationen.
Signe Hegelund: Hvorfor det? Hvordan husker børn? Jeg tror ikke at retorikken udvikler mnemoteknikken – jeg tror den imiterer og forfiner en “Naturlig mnemoteknik” – som er den børn også tyr til helt af sig selv. Vi har vel alle brug for at memorere- spørgsmålet er vel HVORDAN vi reelt gør det. Vi gør det også ved hjælp af det sproglige: rim, rytme osv.
Signe Hegelund: Da jeg jo først lærer svensk af min stedmor – som bestemt ikke er kristen – har jeg ikke lært denne bøn som barn. Vi BØR lære vores børn at de ER elskede og at vi som gode protestanter ikke tror på at det er noget man kan gøre sig fortjent til. Gud elsker dig! Og Gud er ikke en købmand som man slår en handel af med… Gud elsker mennesket og Kristus har sonet dine synder – så du har ikke nogen grund til at skjule dig for Gud. Men nu er vi igen i fuld gang med forkyndelse på FB… Og som retoriker må jeg sige: Det egner mediet sig moderat godt til.

(image credits:
http://unclelouiesletters.blogspot.dk/2013_02_01_archive.html and Bundesarchiv, B 145 Bild-F001163-0012 / Unterberg, Rolf / CC-BY-SA 3.0)