Monday, August 3, 2015

"The Past Is Never Dead" and the Great Hope of One Brief Essay

Is “it true that living in the past---to be a kind of…Miss Havisham—can be bad for the mind and the soul, preventing us from engaging in the battles and causes of our own time”?1

Depends on how long we live in the past and for what purpose. According to Jon Meacham, “When we are at our best, history and heroes enable us to look ahead, not backward. We are the sum of the stories we tell ourselves…memory” creates the present and then the future.

First the negative, then the positive, the hope:

“History is bunk. History is myth.”
Henry Ford

“…If you didn't know history, you didn't know anything. You were a leaf that didn't know it was part of a tree…The purpose of history is to explain the present…tells us what is to be ignored, or discarded. That is true power - profound power.”
Michael Crichton, Timeline

“History is a contest of evidence…like archaeology: you need to dig.”
Patrick Lockerby

An historian thinks about the "dead" past in order to reveal our relationship with a past that lives in us.

“The past is never dead; it’s not even past.”
William Faulkner

Then quotes of hope:

“Stories are the center of the human condition. Everybody dreams. Try to dream in nonfiction.”
Jim Trelease

“If you believe the impossible, the incredible can come true.”
Phil Alden Robinson, Field of Dreams

And so forth, maybe…

“The future is unknowable, but the past should give us hope.”
Winston Churchill

“…the past should give us hope”? How unlikely.
It’s been my avid vocation, but misfortune, to read hundreds of scholarly books on history, especially about Christianity. From Jesus Wars2 to the Great War to First-Strike Iraq, history of the Christian sort mostly brings tragic sorrow and despair. Not that Islamic or Hindu or secular history is any less horrific.

Another writer wrote that history is HISstory, meaning, of course, that history is God’s story—that God sovereignly ordained/caused/willed/predestined whatever has come to ‘past,’ and what is, and what will be.
3(To see my honest reaction to that statement see footnote.)Unlike what Churchill says ought to be, the more one reads the past, the more one’s hope will often fade, weighed down by millions of gutted bodies, of so many horrific wrong turns.

If it weren’t that “the past is never dead; it’s not even past” but very present, it would probably be better not know the despair of the past.

But, leave all of that in the past:-)

Here's a silver lining, a redemption of actions that show how one single action by one individual human--the writing of a brief essay--can bring great hope and change to the world.

How did Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, and many other social reformers of the 20th century come to act as they did for peace, justice, and compassion?

The central past event was one short essay of American literature, "On Civil Disobedience," by Henry David Thoreau. This brief reflection written n 1848 against the U.S. invasion of Mexico, though unknown by most Americans, has had more impact on world history than all other American literature, except for the Declaration of Independence. And the essay continues to influence events and will do so into the future.

Follow the links to see how the essay has changed millions of peoples lives since it was written.

1848, New England
Written against the Mexican War and against slavery
1920-1948, India
Used by Gandhi to obtain freedom for India from England
1938-1943, Germany
Considered by Bonhoeffer as a way to oppose Hitler
1950's, the World
Banned by every U.S. library around the world during McCarthyism
1954-1968, USA
Stated by King to be the central factor that moved him to help start the Civil Rights movement

1963-1974, USA
Used to oppose the Vietnam War
1955-1992, South Africa, USA
Method of opposition to oppose Apartheid of South African Government
1960-1990's, California
Adopted by Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers to seek just working conditions and pay

1960's-1998, USA
Practiced by both pro-abortion and anti-abortion groups
1950's-1990's, the World
Used by people to oppose nuclear weapons and chemical weapons

1990-to the Present
Used by protesters against oppression by both Palestinian and Israeli governments, against the Gulf War, First-Strike Invasion of Iraq, immigration deportation, economic disparity, etc.

What historical past has inspired you to live now and to hope for the future?

In the Light,

Daniel Wilcox

1"From The Stories We Tell Ourselves" by Jon Meacham, Newsweek, July 7, 2008
2Jesus Wars by Phillip Jenkins, a history of the twists and killings of early Christianity
3To hell with that. What an obscene joke.


Yekaterina Haussler said...

Past is there so we can learn from it and, hopefully, not repeat the mistakes over and over. However, the statement "History repeats itself" is very true, too. The world is going through ups and downs, repeating certain situations, going through the same problems, from one generation to the next.
I personally find hope and inspiration in the stories of individuals. Recently, watching the movie "Selma" was a big experience. "Changeling" (a true story) was another movie about an individual struggle against "absolute power" that made me think.
I find lamenting over the horrors of the past a waste of time. I believe those horrors should be examined and considered quietly, and learned from. After all, as one of my friends said to me recently, "when we think of villains, we imagine monsters. Yet, true villains, truly evil people are very regular, often sweet looking folks who love their kids, their families, and their pets." What makes them evil? Unwillingness to think for themselves, I guess.
Thank you

Daniel Wilcox said...

I haven't seen Selma yet but it's on my list to get from Netflix.

I agree that there are only a small minority of sociopaths. Most horrific evil in history and now is caused by 'well-meaning, dutiful, even nice' people.

That's how it was when I lived in Palestine/Israel. And that's how it was in historical eras I've studied intensely.

Also, another contributing factor is we humans incesantly tend to focus on ourselves and our kin, and our nation. Learning to show empathy and kindness and generosity to 'others' seems to take years and most of us are still working on being kind and empathetic to those near us:-)

I think that is what the Good Samaritan story by Jesus was all about.

Thanks for stopping by.