I was walking up this long rural road, a road I walk or drive on almost daily. And as I looked to the distance ahead, let my mind rest mindfully in the view, I suddenly felt there were layers in this road or under it. Old roads. Unknowns. The road has two lanes now. Was it once only one lane? A path traveled by native Americans? A deer path?
What was this hill like in the past before this road was built? What is hidden? I stopped and stared into the distance, imagining what the road might cover. These trees on the side. They are now maybe forty feet high. In many places there is just one lone tree fronting a home. Were the trees that bordered this road once part of a vast forest of interconnected trees, huge monsters reaching up to the sky?
We think of our road, village, town, or city as being just this, just the way it is now. The same old thing. But we know this isn’t the only way to see it. Not the only way it has been seen, even by me. This road, for example, was recently repaved and widened. The relationship of me standing here, the car speeding too fast by me, that crow calling, the spongy moth floating down its line never existed before.
What does it mean to me, now, that just 39 years ago, the lines of cables lining the road for the internet weren’t here? There was no Facebook, TikTok, texting.
What does it mean that 77 years ago World War II ended? A hundred years ago was the roaring 20’s. About four hundred years ago, the first Europeans came to this area, which had been populated up to then by the Cayuga tribe of Native Americans. Before the Cayugas, there were more bears than people. Today, we’re shocked, but maybe secretly filled with joy, when a bear walks down our street or visits the food market. Back then, the bears were shocked to see one of us in the forest. So much change.
How is this past alive in this present? What does it mean that our lives can change so much and so continuously? So much pain. So much gain and loss.
History is the story of change. Dr. Theodore Christou said history is rooted in storytelling.
The Greek root of ‘history’ is historia, which means inquiry, seeking knowledge. And ‘story’, histoire in French, is history without the ‘hi’. Both words refer to an account of events.
We use stories to organize and shape the moments and events of our lives into memories. How we shape those stories is how we shape ourselves, create an identity or personal history. And we then know ourselves through these stories. Likewise, a culture knows itself through its stories. This history is a collective memory. It shapes how we relate with others and shows us who we are.
And to protect our sense of ourselves, we often sacrifice fully living a moment to create a satisfying memory of the moment. Daniel Kahneman, Professor of psychology and public affairs and Nobel Prize winner in Economics describes in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, experiments showing how, if faced with a choice between having a good memory but more pain, or a bad memory and less pain, we pick the good memory.
But the discipline of history is different. It is about knowing and recounting as accurately as possible, in that moment, what actually occurred. It requires the use of evidence and a community of scholars to test the claim to evidence. It recognizes that no matter how much effort is exerted, new evidence might come to light. The truth is always much bigger than our ability to discover and describe it.
Storytelling only requires that the characters and plotline engage us and feels like truth even when it’s fiction. So, we must be very aware of the stories both personal and collective that we tell ourselves. And aware that these are only stories, conveniences.
Historian Timothy Snyder says history grounds us. It gives us a sense of confidence. Tells us how things fit or could fit together. Thus, it gives us a sense of freedom and ethics, that our actions have consequences and that we are not alone.
It can add a sense of depth to the ordinary, a sense of possibility to those who feel locked into a future they don’t want or locked out of one they do want.
When history is hidden, or we are taught a lie, our perception of ourselves individually and collectively is distorted. As a result we can feel crowded into a narrow chamber of selfies with no space to fully breathe, no steady ground to stand on. We can feel insecure, easily threatened, with little power to know who we truly are or act on what we need. We then might try to institutionalize a lie or concretize one group’s power over others.
To study history is to question it, to reconsider the stories we tell ourselves, to clarify and bring those stories to life. This is another reason why studying history and telling stories can be both so powerful and yet painful. This is why political, social, and economic interests, like the GOP today, try to ban books, attack public schools and censor teaching the history of hate, racism, and social justice in the US. We need better and more equitable funding of public education, of teaching history and critical thinking, not less.
History does not just describe how specific events have causes and consequences, but that instead of being separate and isolated from the universe, we are united in a vast web of interdependent forces all constantly working on each other together. And mindfully studying ourselves, fully engaging in the moment with the road on which we walk, can also reveal this web and what is there beyond the story. Can reveal the process of storytelling not just the story. The present, and what’s real and true.
If we can feel this, if we have a better sense not only of how everything changes, but how change is an essential ingredient in everything, then we can have a better sense of how to change what needs changing⎼ change the story, change the history, and improve the reality we create from our storytelling. Combining the study of history and the practice of mindfulness meditation can be powerful.