Life/History

I’ve never been very good with dates.

I think that’s actually probably true of many of us, given that one of the most common complaints about history is that it’s “boring and all about memorizing dates” when, of course, neither of these things are true. History is dynamic and exciting and we are living in it and making it right now. Right this very moment. History is being made. It’s just hard to see that when you are inside the history which is being made.

With time comes perspective, and a deeper understanding of the events which have gone before us. Just recently we celebrated the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, an event which still feels very real and immediate to me, but we’ve learned so much more about it in the intervening years. Being lucky enough to live through an event and to watch our cultural understanding of it unfold is actually rather exciting.

7 December is a date I always remember. On this date in 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, forcing the United States into the Second World War because, of course, the United States pretty much had to declare war on Japan at that point. As a catalyst, the event was important, one of those turning points in American history which has been examined and dissected numerous times over the intervening years.

There’s a vast wealth of material on Pearl Harbor. Numerous collections of memories taken from interviews, newsreel footage, etc. Scores of books written by historians over the decades exploring every aspect of Pearl Harbor and the surrounding events. Fictionalizations, of course, like the relatively recent feature film; the day that will live in infamy is in fact such a part of our cultural fabric that it can be referenced in fiction and people will understand its meaning, Pearl Harbor as shorthand.

Pearl Harbor Day was a Sunday.

I know this because some of the recollections of the date I’ve read (and I’ve read a lot, because it’s an event which interests me) mention the fact that people heard about the event in church. One recollection, written by a minister, explored his struggle over whether or not to tell parishoners before the service. I wish I could find it again, because it was a very interesting history, taken about 10 years after the event, and it was fascinating to read about the thoughts which went through the minister’s head, and the logic he laid out to come to a decision about what to do.

The thing about history is that it’s not just a date; you don’t have to remember precisely when an event occurred to understand the history and context of that event. What makes history interesting is the stories behind it. I could recite a whole assortment of numbers about Pearl Harbor, I could give you statistics and information about what happened. You could find numerous texts which would provide you with more information than you would have dreamed possible; reading all of the documentation about the event would take far more time than the event itself consumed.

But we know what happened. What’s interesting is not what happened, but how it happened, and why, and in which context it happened. Pearl Harbor is interesting because it is filled with stories; from sailors, from airmen, from soldiers. From civilian bystanders, from Washington decisionmakers. From ordinary citizens who were there, alive, on that day. It’s interesting because it happened on a Sunday.

History is a living organism which deepens in complexity over time.

This is what confuses me about people who say that they don’t like history, or aren’t interested in it, or think it’s boring. How can you think history is boring when there’s so much of it? And when it’s so filled with layers and layers of material which can be peeled, like an onion, to expose things you hadn’t even thought of before? How can history be dull when it informs the very nature of our culture, when in fact historical events are woven through countless pop culture references?

The saying goes that history is doomed to repeat itself, and on pessimistic days, I think that’s true, because it seems like many people learn absolutely nothing from history. But it’s a little bit more complex than that; it’s not that we haven’t learned from history itself, but that we haven’t taken the opportunity to learn from the people who lived through it. I noted this when numerous news outlets covered the approach to financial planning developed by people who lived through the Great Depression; the same approach which helped these people evade financial catastrophe when the global economy started to tank.

Those people lived through something and they learned from it. They even warned us about it. And we ignored them, crashing on with what we were doing, because we said that times had changed, that things couldn’t repeat, that these lessons were from a mythical past era which isn’t applicable to the current era at all.

But, the thing is, we still are human beings, that hasn’t changed. And that’s why history runs in cycles, because we don’t pay attention to the people who lived through it.

History is a series of stories. And they’re actually really interesting, dare I say fascinating, stories, for those who take the time to seek them out. Is it possible to break the pattern we’ve created for ourselves, historically, by actually collectively taking the time to value history and the custodians of history? Don’t read the history books; read the recollections of the people who experienced history. If you think history is boring, don’t go to lectures by professors; talk to the older people in your own community. I think you may find that history comes alive that way.

Sure, history can benefit from contexualization and analysis and an exploration of the larger picture. But some of the most immediate and fascinating history is that which comes from personal experience. And if you get sucked in by that, as I did, you might find new life in all those dry, boring old books.