As Time Goes By

One of the unfortunate habits of history is that people rarely learn from history. But neither do we repeat it exactly either. Instead, what we often try to do is change some of the surface circumstances in the thought that this will help us from repeating the same overall bad patterns. We think that the changes needed to avoid repeating history are minor, and we do not realize that we end up becoming and doing what we hate because we do not change the underlying patterns of thought and behavior. If the surface is all that we change we will not be successful at making the sort of deep breaks with the past that we long to break.

One of the reasons that history is so important is that our behavior as people or families or societies is like a little stream that takes a certain path to the sea, and then gradually starts to carve a deeper and deeper canyon over time that becomes increasingly difficult to change over time, without a great deal of willingness to put the work in facing and dealing with the difficult truths of our life in a way that accepts that we must change the paths of our life if we want them to be different. After all, families and institutions and nations are merely people writ large, with the same hopes and fears and insecurities as people in their private lives, only with the power to greatly harm (or help) others through their actions.

As time goes by, we are supposed to see the circumstances of our life and our place in history as an opportunity to get things right this time. Every new crisis is a chance to genuinely learn from the past to examine ourselves and to recognize that everyone involved is a human being worthy of love and respect. It is all too easy for us to fight and divide against each other for minor reasons that become blown out of proportion. There are necessary fights and struggles (like that of good and evil), but most of those struggles are internal, within ourselves, as we struggle to do what we know to be right, or not to do what we know to be wrong. Very rarely is there a fight of pure good and evil, or even anything close to it, in the sorts of struggles and disagreements that we have.

One would think that we could learn these things. But in history and in our lives, we are fooled by the differences of surface conditions into not recognizing the same deeper patterns and similarities over and over and over again. If we were more sensitive to deeper patterns within ourselves and others, we might be more aware of the role we all play in the repeating cycles of our lives and our history. The value of history is in the case studies provided to us by experience, which are always much more complicated (and therefore much more valuable) than theoretical presentations which always have the touch of simplification and modeling. Sometimes we need a simplified model to understand a concept, but the hard part of life is always the practice, and history provides the record of experiences so that we do not have to make the same mistakes ourselves.

But do we have any interest in learning? All too often we learn the wrong lessons from history. We think that surface conditions like technology or our good intentions will trump the underling repetitive patterns of life, as if the people who lived in the past had only bad intentions and that it was their technology that was inadequate to the troubles that they faced. Generally that is far from the case. We are generally not failed by our technology, but by our courage or by our character, or by our ability to communicate our feelings and wishes and thoughts and insights to others. These problems remain the same no matter what technology we have because they are human problems. And no technology and no doctrine will solve human problems without correct practice. Practice is always much more difficult than knowledge.

As time goes by, we have the opportunity to be wiser than our fathers. We have the chance to stand on the shoulders of giants, to balance their extremes, to achieve what they left incomplete because of lack of time and energy. All too often, though, we are content either to engage in blind rejection of our fathers and fail to recognize their virtues even as we excoriate them for their vices, or to engage in blind adoration of our fathers and not recognize that everything can be improved and reformed of the corruption of human tradition and the lingering effects of sin. Whatever extreme we choose of the two, we end up with a harsh and rigid way of thinking that is partly good and partly evil, while intolerant of other people with different mixes of good and evil that are distinct from our own.

And that is not helpful. If our goal is maturity, or some kind of perfection, we must take stock of what we have, recognize what is good and what is evil, assess the legacy we have gained from our fathers, and neither to reject it out of hand nor to idolize it, but to view it as a starting point, while recognizing that our own achievements, such as they are, will be the starting point for some other generation or some other people, and that they will look at us the same way that we look at our fathers. May they look at us with patience and respect and empathy, rather than with contempt and hostility. For we too have our sins, our pious hypocrisies, our massive blunders and errors, our feigned competences, our dark secrets, and our unfinished business. So does everyone else, every other family, every other institution, and every other culture. One would think that we would eventually learn that, but that is not always the case, unfortunately.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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