Sunday, February 14, 2010

When History Lives

I was a lousy history student as a child – mostly because I was a poor memorizer.  Dates, events, and people may as well have been soup made of crazy combinations of refrigerator leftovers.  Nothing made sense to me.

It wasn’t until I took an American History class to fulfill my college requirements that all this changed.

My Professor was a dry witted New Englander who would flash pictures of furniture on the screen and ask us not what historical period they came from, but what (by simply observing the style and construction of the furniture) we could tell him about the people who made it.  That is when my life as a student of history changed.

Until then it had never occurred to me that history was about context.  In the vast historical sea of humanity there are those who rise to the surface precisely because of their response to social, religious, and political realities of their time.  They are people who made a difference because they understood the significance of the actions they took.

When you can literally reach back in time and place yourself in the shoes of those who lived before you – this rich history comes alive.

My final term paper for the class was a study of Lothrop Hill Cemetery in Barnstable, Massachusetts.  It included not only the epitaphs of the people buried there, but the stone cutters who carefully carved the symbols and words.

To physically touch the stone markers containing dates as far back as 1683 moved me emotionally.  I imagined those left behind doing the same.  They were parents, spouses, and children – people who mattered, if only to a small circle of loved ones.

In fact written history is a very small sampling of the true human story.  It has been estimated that the number of people who have ever lived on earth is in the neighborhood of 106,456,367,669 and of that number only 5% are currently alive.  What these numbers don’t measure is the significance of each and every one of those people – how they lived and loved, the lives they touched, the challenges they met, the battles they fought, and the lives they saved.

The true history of humankind cannot be measured simply by the facts, but by the miracle of what it means to be truly human during the time we occupy.  It’s about the historical decisions we make everyday – how we live and how we treat each other.  It’s about the larger issues we face and how our actions will forever affect the future of those who come after us.  It’s about the legacy we leave behind whether we believe it to be large or small.

The challenge is to live our lives well and with all the integrity we can muster, because we are in fact links in the larger chain, and how we live makes a difference.

© 2010