Learning from History

I’ve been watching Mysteries at the Museum on Netflix. It is really good for putting on while I do things like sorting invoices or stamping books. The show takes interesting artifacts from smaller museums all of the country and tells the stories that landed the object in a museum. I enjoy hearing the stories and learning about pockets of history I hadn’t known before.

One of the things that becomes apparent to me is that in every era, humans are still human. They make the same sorts of mistakes and show similar brilliance. Throughout history there has been political upheaval, local scandal, astounding bravery, and brilliant discovery. My era of existence has far more in common with historical era than modern folks tend to think. The mechanisms are different, but theft is still theft whether it uses a sword or a computer.

Another thing I am noticing is that many of these historical stories take place during my living memory. Some of them I even remember seeing in the news. It brought to my attention that the older I get, the more of my life is considered historical. My Grandma was an adult during World War II, which I studied in school. 9/11 is beginning to be taught in history classes to current day teenagers who were born after it happened. I don’t mind this really. It doesn’t make me feel old. But it does remind me that the older people get, the more history they carry with them. Talking to older folks is very worthwhile. My grandma is gone. Getting her to tell stories about her childhood took lots of coaxing. She wasn’t a natural storyteller. There is so much about her life that we don’t know.

I noticed a third thing when I saw a pair of episodes close to each other. One told a story of smuggling fugitive slaves from the US South into the northern states for freedom. Another told about smuggling Chinese refugees into the US. In both cases the action was the same: helping oppressed people travel from a place of fear to a place of hope. Yet one story was pitched as an act of heroism while the other was presented as a crime. It is true that the mass smuggling of people had a profit motive that was likely not present for the smuggling of single fugitives, yet I couldn’t help but think about the fact that history is always biased. Any time we hear a story it is colored by the person and the society who tells it. A person who is a villain in one context may be perceived as a hero in another.

This is true not just for historical events, but every single day. I once had a front row seat to a friend’s divorce. I got to hear from both halves of the splitting couple, and gradually I came to understand why it is hard to be close to a situation like that without taking sides. I’m still friends with one half of the former couple and long ago out of touch with the other half. Every story has another side, another way of seeing things. This is part of why my head gets so noisy because I automatically try to see those alternative views. Yet eventually I have to choose how to act, which means I have to chose which version to act upon.

Life is complicated. People are fascinating. History shows us this, particularly when we look at the small scale stories instead of the large sweeps that are taught in school.