google-site-verification: googlee20fcd946adc59a7.html Out of the Past: May 2010

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Benchmark Statement

One of the great lies of our time, perpetuated by the media and our leaders, is the notion of historical progress. Somehow we got it into our heads — and this probably dates back to Aristotle — that time is a one-way track and that once we (as a people) have passed through an era and suffered its ignominies and learned its lessons we could move on, leaving the past behind.

“Leave the past to the past; it’s water under the bridge. Away to the future!”

But everywhere you look, from the findings of quantum physics to archaeological discoveries to the morning news, there is evidence that the past is still in the present, and in the future too.

Genocide did not begin or end with the Holocaust, the Corps of Discovery is still crossing the Rockies, and the American Civil War is not over. Conflicts in the Middle East, debates about evolution and anti-war protests are just the latest episodes in a dramatic series that has been airing for a long, long time.

When I was in high school, I remember feeling that history had lost its relevance, that space exploration and Vietnam and nuclear weapons were such unique developments that the voices and lessons of the past had nothing instructive to contribute. The 21st century was going to be far, far different than anything that had come before.

I was not alone in my wrong-mindedness. Ours was a “new age” with a many a “new beginning” and “new” products and technologies. Old was irrelevant.

What I did not recognize, and what is still not commonly perceived, is how cyclical and repetitive are the patterns of history. Everything from the movements of continents and the growth and recession of the ice caps to the ups and downs of the stock market and the rise and fall of civilizations defies the notion that time and history are progressing steadily forward into a “new” future.

Even some subatomic particles appear to travel back and forth in time, suggesting that now and later and before are more interconnected than we can imagine.

George Santayana’s famous warning, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” is a lie too. It suggests that knowledge of the past can somehow change the course of the history, as if the study of meteorology could control the path of a hurricane.

Like the weather, I believe, the cycles of history cannot be redirected. We cannot help but be caught up in its storms. We are, by nature, condemned to its repetitions. But, as individuals, we have the ability to make choices, and knowledge of what has come before and how others dealt with it then can make a big difference in how we weather our future.

It makes a difference what crops you plant or where you settle, what leaders you follow and the advice you heed.

Knowing history, then, is more than mere recreation; it is critical to our survival. “For nine-tenths of the time that human beings have been on earth, knowledge that was essential to survival was transmitted from one generation to the next by the vehicle of story,” notes the eminent U.S. historian David McCullough.

History is told in stories, and voices from out of the past are our most instructive storytellers. Tales of plagues and abundance, victories and losses, disasters and good fortune are the lifeboats of our culture, dispatched for our survival. Take hold where you can, and pull yourself to safety.

Copyright © 2005. All rights reserved by Michael Hofferber