Why History? What is it about the past that inspires us to turn our heads from the present and gaze into human memory? Perhaps the toils and humdrum of everyday life get to be too much. Perhaps the never ending barrage of input thrust upon our fragile senses conflicts fundamentally with our natural selves. We all seem to be screaming "Enough! No more flashing lights, beepers, and neon! No more commuter lanes, rush hour, and ‘construction for the next 5 miles’! No, we don’t want to be asked at the airport if our luggage has been handled by anyone else, we don’t want to be put on hold, and for God's sake, please stop making such fast-paced, fast-cutting, ‘hip’ commercials!" Yet it keeps coming, endless and escalating, and there seems to be nothing we can do about it.
So where does history fit in? History can give us a glimpse into what was and what was meant to be. It can fill us with perspective and, if we are lucky, meaning. It teaches us that we don’t have to ignore the past, but rather embrace it, and let it guide our present with the simple truth that part of who we are, is who we were.
There are some who believe that we should live entirely in the present, that to study history is to study a colossal waste of time. They say the only thought of any value is a thought in the present, the only efficient action is one taken toward the future. How hopelessly bored these people must be. History is not just a bunch of distant facts and obscure references (although as an eight-year-old once put it, it is filled with a lot of "dead guys"), it is a journey which we are all part of. It is the record of an entire race of beings, with all our love, compassion, fears, laughter, and outcries. History shows our tremendous capacity for good as well as evil, our accomplishments, our shortcomings, our reason, and our insanity. It is a map to the very nature of man, where we have separated from other animals, and where we are sometimes too similar.
Perhaps above all, history is a gift. It is precious knowledge that results from time and existence. If we use it, we can find perspective on who we are as a people, where we are going, and why. History gives us the ability to see ourselves as clearly as we choose to, whether it be finding out who invented shoelaces, or figuring out where our instincts end and our souls begin.
History, in the end, is not separate from the present or the future. It is as real as our lives are real. By allowing the past into our lives, we allow all the knowledge, work, and experience of our ancestors into our lives. That is not something we should ignore, but something we should cherish, learn from, and honor. If we allow it, it can show us the very best of our humanity, the very best of ourselves, and ennoble us with faith in our fellow man, hope for our future, and illumination in our daily lives.