Living in the Present and Learning from History

I’ve always been told that it’s important not to live in the past. But I’ve also been told that it’s important to learn and remember history in order to make sure we don’t repeat the same mistakes. This apparent contradiction between having to live in the present and yet immerse yourself in the past creates an interesting tension.

I find that when you’re entrenched in history and its harsh lessons – it naturally colors your perspective of the world around you – things you expect, your understanding of others’ perspectives, and ultimately, your own actions. For example, learning about the American Civil War shapes your understanding of the United States and creates a tendency to divide it between North and South (even today), especially for those living on the East Coast. And yet, at the same time, to act in a manner that is completely unaware of the past because you’re focused on the present almost seems naïve. Because even if you’re convinced on living in the now and being unaffected by the actions of the past – that’s not the reality that those around you are living in. They are affected by history similar to the way that you are subject to it as well, whether you choose to acknowledge it or not.

So what do I do?

Because if you acknowledge history and are aware of its lessons at every moment – you risk a mentality that generates a self-fulfilling prophecy. Those who hold images of a tyrannical Soviet Union from the Cold War are at risk of unintentionally treating and therefore causing Russia to act as if it were the same country, because their perspective of current events (ie. Ukraine) is colored to interpret its actions in a certain way. And even as I type that sentence, I realize that it feels slightly uncomfortable to suggest that Russia could be different or could have different intentions, partly because I am so entrenched in that narrative and I have been taught to focus on those specific details that paint Russia in a “clinging on to its old days of power” kind of light. That introduces part of the tension, because in the context of Russia’s current actions, in one way, it can be beneficial to remember that even if many other countries are trying to “live in the present,” the reality could be that Russia isn’t. Yet, responding to a person or a country in a defensive way, expecting them to be hostile, has a strong potential of influencing them to manifest that very behavior. Is there a way to distinguish whether learning about history is helping us understand the context of another country and its decisions or if it’s simply coloring our perspective and causing us to treat that country in a manner that reinforces our idea and understanding of what it is and why it makes the decisions that it does?

To use another example that has been very evident on this study abroad trip to show that tension between living in the present and learning from history – there seems to be a strong European sentiment against war. Many Europeans are extremely aware of Europe’s recent history when it comes to war, including World Wars I and II, not to mention the centuries of fighting that has taken place on European soil. Expectedly, they are much more wary of war, because they are cognizant of and taught in a manner that emphasizes the devastations that come with violence and fighting. In this sense, their immersion in history and learning from it is what constantly pushes them to avoid another repetition of that terrible moment in their past. However, if taken to the extreme, that very immersion may be an obstacle to progress by causing many countries to not use or focus on force in areas that may actually necessitate it. With the increasing number of issues that are arising around the European continent and a trend of decreasing defense budgets in many European countries, the tension rises again between learning from the past and being able to live in current times and deal with present issues. For example, in the context of its past, it makes sense why Germany does not want to focus on building its military strength, and yet, with the increase in terrorism, human trafficking, and potential issues with Russia, that very connection to the past that has created an anti-war sentiment may be what prevents it from being there to protect its European neighbors in a time of need.

Evolutionarily speaking, one purpose of having new generations is that they bring new perspectives. They did not have to live through the same experiences that the previous generation had to go through, so naturally, they don’t hold the same harsh memories of devastation or hardship – allowing them to view things in a new light and contributing to society’s progress. In fact, many times, part of what allows a society to form new relationships and explore new options is being able to bury or essentially “forget” parts of history – not letting our perspective or actions be prejudiced by raw memories. Letting “bygones be bygones” is part of what allows new perspectives and values to develop in each generation.

And part of it is inevitable – just by virtue of our different experiences. We are growing up in a different world today than our ancestors did. No matter how much we learn about World War I and World War II or the atrocities of genocides – there is a fundamental difference in the way we relate to it as students of history than those who have had to live through it, lose family and friends to it, and experience those tragedies first-hand. And that ultimately creates a difference in our viewpoints, sentiments, and our actions.

But I suppose that all this reveals that I don’t really know how to address this tension – it’s just something that has become more present in my mind and something that I’ve had to grapple with.

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