Your permanent record

Do you remember how, in grade school, your teachers would threaten you with “a mark on your permanent record” if you misbehaved? Permanent was such a scary word. It meant forever, didn’t it? And that’s a long time. Of course, later we found out that our high schools knew next to nothing about our elementary school adventures, and no one wanted to see our high school transcripts after college applications were done. When I sent my college transcript to graduate schools, it certainly didn’t include my high school grades — and now, professors happily assure us that no one will ever care about our grades again, so we shouldn’t worry about the difference between a B+ and an A. “Permanent” typically lasts around five years, plus or minus two, it seems.

I still catch myself thinking in terms of my permanent record, though — not that I was the sort of kid to have to worry about that sort of thing (I was a real teacher’s-pet type). It’s just a natural, comfortable way to conceive of our life experiences. Almost like a game where you rack up points or subtract them as you go … something structured with an end goal and a way to present your merits when you get there.

I was mortified when I got my first speeding ticket. At the moment I saw those flashing lights from the police car in my rearview mirror on the highway, I was worried that I would somehow be branded a criminal for the rest of my life. I was young(er) and (more) naive, okay? I thought I would never get a job or a loan, my parents would no longer be proud of me … let’s just say it was not one of my finer, more composed moments. When I finally worked up the courage to tell my mother, I was stunned with relief. She asked me whether any points were going to be taken off my license, and told me a funny story about a ticket she had gotten one time. It was no big deal! Sure, you shouldn’t drive dangerously, and having to pay a ticket sucks, but in the grand scheme of things it hardly mattered at all! Besides, really, once I thought about it … how would anyone have known if I hadn’t told them? And even if they did know I’d gotten a speeding ticket, what did it actually matter?

The other sort of situation in which I’ve noticed myself engaging in this kind of magical thinking has to do with check-up appointments, generally at the doctor or the dentist. I start to watch my weight a lot more carefully in the weeks leading up to a doctor’s visit, because I know they’re going to weigh me. I wear my lightest clothes. They’re going to write that number down in a little file! And then … what? Then they’ll have a number written down there. I don’t get branded “healthy” or “unhealthy”, “fat” or “thin” or whatever because of that number. (Not that those pairs of terms are equivalent.) I get more conscientious about flossing about a month before I have a dentist appointment. Not just because I want the process of having my teeth cleaned to be less painful — if that were my priority, I’d floss all the time — but because I want my dentist to think I have healthy gums and (therefore, I guess) approve of me. As though that somehow reflects on my merit as a human being. As though any of this stuff earns me “achievement points” or something that I can show off at the end of my life to demonstrate my success.

Now, when I catch myself acting irrationally or holding irrational beliefs, I change my actions and my beliefs. Perhaps there’s a natural human inclination to think this way; I’m not a psychology researcher and I don’t know, but anecdotal evidence from my friends and me suggests it might be. Natural doesn’t equal true or good, of course. Still, many religions take up this (possible) tendency and incorporate it into their supernatural beliefs, at which point it can’t be changed by anything (evidence, logic, etc.) short of apparent divine revelation.

In the Qur’an, Surah 69 describes part of the Day of Judgment in which everyone is presented with record books of all their deeds:

Then, on that day will the Event befall. And the heaven will split asunder, for that day it will be frail. And the angels will be on the sides thereof, and eight will uphold the Throne of thy Lord that day, above them. On that day ye will be exposed; not a secret of you will be hidden. Then, as for him who is given his record in his right hand, he will say: Take, read my book! Surely I knew that I should have to meet my reckoning. Then he will be in blissful state in a high garden whereof the clusters are in easy reach. (And it will be said unto those therein): Eat and drink at ease for that which ye sent on before you in past days.

But as for him who is given his record in his left hand, he will say: Oh, would that I had not been given my book and knew not what my reckoning! Oh, would that it had been death! My wealth hath not availed me, my power hath gone from me.

And we can’t forget Revelation 20:12,

And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done.

Naturally, the Jewish god cares a lot about everyone’s specific actions too, and while I’m not sure if there’s a specific mention in the Tanakh/Old Testament about a physical book of records, Ecclesiastes 12 concludes:

For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.

This is also reminiscent of the ancient Egyptian belief in the weighing of the deceased’s heart against the feather of Maat and other ritual judgments, all recorded by the scribe of the gods, Thoth. I’m sure that religions which teach reincarnation have some sort of record-related beliefs, but I’m having trouble finding a reliable source (possibly in part because these religions are generally even more fragmented than Christianity is). If you know of other examples, leave a comment!

I understand how ideas like this could come about, and how they could stick around over the millennia. We remember our actions and experiences, our minor triumphs and failures … and it’s a little strange and even sad to think that they’re actually as ephemeral as our lives are, if not more so. But when it comes to describing reality, the primary consideration shouldn’t be whether a belief is pleasant to hold, or whether it is comfortable and in line with our instincts. The only question that matters is: what evidence do we have for believing this description is actually true?

Image credit: Paul Lukas, the Permanent Record Project (which is quite interesting and totally unrelated to this post).

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  1. Jojo the hun

     /  December 4, 2011 at 2:03 pm

    Here’s an interesting perspective on the “permanent record”.

    What happens to past and future me



  2. I don’t know if you have heard of akashic records, but it sounds like what you are asking.

  3. @Jojo: Neat stuff! Brian Greene’s book ‘The Elegant Universe’ was one of the first things that got me “into” physics for real. He sure has a way with words, doesn’t he…

    @Paul: Yeah, that was one of the things I found but I couldn’t figure out if it was a real Hindu concept (to whatever extent that is a phrase that makes sense) or just a new-agey Theosophy thing. Even if it’s the latter, I guess that still counts. Every Hindu source I could find that mentioned akasha, though, was just using it in the aether sense – without a “records are written in the aether” added understanding.

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