The Past Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning

things_from_the_past_by_pamba-d5cq4dlI read a brief devotional work at the beginning of most of my class sessions at Northwest University.  Now in my fifth year of teaching, I have a general pool of books from which I tend to draw.  Even so, I needed a new one for one of my courses this semester.  After quickly scanning my shelves I selected a short work from the Catholic author Henri Nouwen entitled The Living Reminder.

I’ve read some Nouwen before, so I had hopes that his thoughts would be helpful for students.  So far, I’ve liked it.  Especially a comment I read the other day:

The older we grow the more we have to remember, and at some point we realize that most, if not all, of what we have is memory. Our memory plays a central role in our sense of being. Our pains and joys, our feelings of grief and satisfaction, are not simply dependent on the events of our lives, but also, and even more so, on the ways we remember these events. The events of our lives are probably less important than the form they take in the totality of our story. Different people remember a similar illness, accident, success, or surprise in very different ways, and much of their sense of self derives less from what happened than from how they remember what happened, how they have placed the past events into their own personal history.

Nouwen writes from a personal and pastoral viewpoint, of course.  And to that end I understand what he is saying.  How679814 we choose to make sense of our existence (which, as we get older, can be increasingly to do with the past) affects that way we see ourselves and live our lives.  It is a thoughtful insight that, well, just makes sense.

I think I resonate with this statement from my vantage point as an historian.  We who study the past are intimately connected to days gone by and constantly engaged in the task of remembrance.  In that role we can serve as “trail guides” for whole societies of individuals as they choose to look backward.  It is a heady task, surely.  But an essential one.

keep-calm-and-be-a-historianHistorical writers, commentators, museum curators, teachers: all of us have the opportunity to shape that way our world understands the past–and by extension, itself.  I am humbled by that thought even as I am challenged to continue the task assigned to me.  Our view of the past is so often used as a weapon.  It can favor those who like to have their own opinions confirmed.  It can shape so much, and not always for good.  And yet the past, as I’ve found it, can actually help us have perspectives that are much more sympathetic and nuanced than we humans like to be.

The past is not just a story.  It is a real story which we, in a sense, share with all of humanity.  I pray that as we remember it we would grow wise rather than simply confirming our foolishness.