It's about time we stopped thinking of history as a boring subject that has to be made relevant. If you are alive, history is relevant!
History is the story of the individual lives of men and women since the beginning of human time. It is the human time stream that flows with every generation into eternity.
History is a series of images in our collective consciousness. Sometimes the images are distorted by individual and group perspectives that are one-sided. Sometimes the images are blown out of proportion to reality. Sometimes the images are missing vital elements. People make historical images. We contribute to these images every day of our lives.
Mammoths and Egyptian Pyramids
The picture of puny humans hunting a mammoth weighing several tons with spears is a poignant and fascinating one. It speaks volumes for human drive, spirit, ambition, and survival instincts. It says something for human rashness and courage as well. There are images from Egypt and Mesopotamia of workers toiling with gigantic blocks of stone that will be fitted together to make the pyramids. Were the workers literate enough to record their thoughts and lives as they worked and died? Most were not, but they still existed and contributed to the long march of humanity. Along the way they probably sighed and sweated in the hot sun and wished their lives were easier. They probably wondered about the life of the rich man whose tomb they were building. They might even have cursed him! Human actions fit the human condition.
Assyrian Nobles and Christians
The Assyrian nobility are hunting lions. One of the hunters throws a spear but it only wounds the lion. The lion mauls the man before anyone can drive it off. The man dies of his wounds. His wife and children watch his burial. The tears are real. The loss is real. Modern people know about tears and loss.
Christians creep down the crooked dripping tunnels of the Catacombs in Rome. They listen for the harsh voices and clanking spears of the Romans. If the Romans catch them, they will die in a lion's mouth or impaled on the sword of a gladiator. As they wind down the tunnels like the serpent from Eden, they cling to their faith more tightly than they do their lives. It is human to die for something beyond the self.
The mob, acting as one person, heaps more dry wood on the fire. The woman fastened to the stake in the middle of the flames writhes in agony, but she doesn't scream. The Christians are burning the heretics. It is human to die for something bigger than oneself. It is human to kill for something bigger than oneself.
Here is a middle-aged couple in the Middle Ages, ordinary, yet extraordinary because they are rich enough to bequeath property to their children and they are literate. They write letters discussing family matters and expressing their love for each other. Their letters survive into the the 21st century. So do love and family ties.
There are many American images. A group of true Americans clad in buckskin watch a strange bird with white wings sail over the horizon. Two legged creatures emerge from the bird, carrying fire sticks. Indian history begins to be rewritten with the first greetings in different languages.
There are many American war images. Men in red coats are shot by men in fringed leather jackets and leggings and moccasins ‑ men dressed as Indians. The men in red coats finally sail away. Men in silk stockings, knee britches, satin coats and powdered wigs sit around wooden tables and write on crinkly paper with quill pens. One document is labeled Declaration of Independence and the other The Constitution of the United States. Supernatural light seems to glow from them. In two centuries the light has not gone out. It has dimmed and flickered with the vicissitudes of human nature, but it has not gone out.
There is an 1812 War. The soldiers in red coats reappear and this time the Americans wear proper uniforms. During this 1812 War, wind scarred trees wave over the waters of Lake Erie from a peninsula jutting out into the lake. Men resting on the roots of a tree spring back in surprise and fear. The wind and waves have uncovered two skeletons. Two soldiers were shot aboard the ship Niagara that rides the waves in the bay. The pardon for one of the soldiers came through seconds after they had been shot. The bodies were brought to this spot and buried. The men were forgotten until nature presented a reminder.
Soldiers in blue and soldiers in gray fire at each other across a wooded ravine. Another soldier appears waving a white flag. The soldiers lay down their guns and sit around a campfire together. They smoke and tell stories. The soldier with the white flag leaves and the men take up their rifles and shoot at each other once more.
A young woman marches with other women behind flags and a banner proclaiming Woman's Suffrage. Wisps of hair straggle from under her hat. She looks straight ahead. Her forehead is wrinkled. She's not certain about the path ahead, but her footsteps are firm and confident. She is marching toward marriage and motherhood, but she is also marching toward selfhood. The goal is in sight, yet just beyond her reach. She still marches
There are black images. There are wars fought for territory and justified by waving flags and shouting and goose step thinking. Here is another war. The ink on the treaty signed aboard a battleship called Missouri is not yet dry. The winner starts to rebuild the countries of the losers. Atomic clouds obscure healing for a time but eventually the winds of change and healing blow them away.
There is another war with a general appealing to the people and a president who fires him. There are foxholes and bearded soldiers. There is a war with people fighting in American streets and families are divided. It ends with the image of a gleaming black memorial with names and memories and tears that bring people together again.
History Wide Images
Here are images of a people divided and fragmented by selfishness and fantasy images that are often mistaken for reality. Here is the image of a small boy, standing before his father's coffin waving a flag and saluting good‑bye. Here are images of people living ordinary lives, loving and helping each other.
History has many images. Some images are forged by iron ideas into an unbending, unflinching story. Some images are molded by narrow minds in narrow offices, to be seen and understood just as narrowly. Some images are open-ended and aglow with possibilities. All images reflect the heights and depths and plateaus of human nature.
Each generation shapes its history in its own image. There is a relentless logic in creating history in your generation's own image. If your vision is limited so will be your history and so will be your generation. If your generation's history is limited, so will be the writing and rewriting of it. Some from every generation would seize history and shape it in their own image. History has survived and done its own shaping.
History has survived writing and rewriting, the human flaws and blindness of historians, and attempts to obliterate it. Can it survive indifference? Can history survive if people do not care enough even to discuss its relevancy, much less read the history and people of other times with any sense of interest or continuity? History is relevant every second, minute, and hour of your life ‑ as relevant as breath or absence of it. But if no one realizes its relevancy, can it survive?
Truthful, clear eyed history will not always make us feel proud of ourselves or glorify or excuse us. Sometimes it will indict and condemn us. Occasionally it will commend us. But it always sustains us with a sense of continuity and belonging to a human family. If we fragment that bond and weaken it beyond repair, if we let contempt for ourselves and others, temporal blindness, complacency, and laziness destroy our sense of history, we are destroying ourselves. This is the ultimate relevancy!
Clio, The Muse of History
What do you think about history? Is history more than old, dead people? Why is history important in our 21st Century Lives?
Email Clio at: firstname.lastname@example.org with your answers.
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