Be Gentle with the Past

Okay! Today is the day for a confession. I have, in my younger years, had too much to drink! When I was a younger, I had no idea what my body would feel like when I drank alcohol. My first “hangover” was a real shock. I had no idea that the dreamy feelings I had the previous evening could become a nightmare the following morning! So, you would think that the next time I was at a party, I would know better and stop consuming alcohol BEFORE I felt buzzy and giggly. Once again, I missed all the signals and paid the price the following day. It is said that “third time is the charm.” After my third hangover experience, I was determined that I would never be intoxicated again. I finally had learned that the price of the party was not worth the suffering of the following day. I also began to realize that drunkenness was not remotely attractive, even prior to the nausea, vomiting, and pounding headache. I am glad to say, I did learn. I found that I could have a wonderful time without excessive alcohol consumption. I learned to enjoy the flavor of a single glass of wine, a small cup of spiked cider, or a refreshing Mango Mai Tai, but had no desire to drink myself into a stupor.

Right about now, you are asking, “What is the reason for this confession?” My point is, individuals and societies have the capability to learn that behaviors and beliefs can be counterproductive. Human beings have the ability to discover, reconsider, and change thoughts and actions. Throughout history, humankind has made mistakes over and over, but sometimes the consequences have made us become wiser.

I admit, there are many human faults we have not outgrown. Our personal and societal tendencies toward anger, greed, laziness, envy, jealousy, gluttony, and lust are still the underlying causes for most self-interest and disagreement in our world. Still, we continue to strive to find a code of law and moral action that benefits both the person and society. It is difficult to think that, at one time, the notion of “an eye for an eye” was a legal concept which actually provided an improvement over ever-escalating revenge. The stipulations of the Geneva Conventions improved the civil treatment of people during wartime. The laws supporting a woman’s right to vote, as well as civil rights for all, were certainly improvements in how men and women interact in our society.

Today, most individuals and many societies have awakened to the evils of slavery, the value of personal freedoms, and the benefits of female participation in decision making. We have a long way to go to achieve true respect for the gifts of every human person, but we HAVE made progress, I have personally witnessed these advances in my own lifetime. (For more on that topic, look back to my blog “The Good Old Days?” https://grandmasdoor.com/2016/05/02/the-good-old-days/ .)

Here is just a small slice of the real world through history. In the 15th century BCE, Thutmose III and Amenhotep II tried to obliterate Queen Hatshepsut’s name from history. She was their own mother/grandmother. Leaders in the Roman empire (and others) regularly crucified and butchered people. Eleventh century church leaders waged war in order to grasp greater power. Early explorers looked upon native populations as inhuman savages. Our founding fathers were slave holders. Early settlers and native populations killed each other for territory. Today, all these actions are outrageous and we recognize them as brutal and in error. Yet, the actions were common in the the respective eras, and the larger population either did not have the power, inclination, or wisdom to change those ideas and behaviors. Somewhere along the line, wisdom and learning won out and these actions were called out as evil and misguided. I feel we should examine the strengths and weaknesses of our progenitors, but it is unfair to judge them according to the understandings and sensitivities of our current time period.

This line of thought impacts all the arguments presently being made regarding memorials, civic holidays, and the reinterpretation of history. As centuries pass, we often discover unpleasant truths about some of our heroes. Given enough time, most famous people are found to have feet of clay. When I was a girl, we admired (almost worshipped) President John F. Kennedy. In my adult years, the revelations surrounding his womanizing were jarring. However, after thought and reflection, I realized we all have our faults and I began to appreciate his leadership without ignoring his human frailty.

I will always support the desire to tell the ENTIRE story. I believe that details of history should always be balanced alongside the mindset of the original participants. History needs to be taught in comparison and contrast to current codes of ethics and morality. For example, when we tell the story of medical advancement, we should relate the brutal facts along with the laws and morality that allowed those actions. Early physicians enlisted the services of grave robbers before people had the desire and means to donate bodies to scientific investigation. During the Civil War, limbs were amputated, often without anesthesia. Barbers extracted teeth, before the advancement of dental science. Husbands committed their wives to mental asylums, because of marital disagreements or the onset of menopause. Doctors used prisoners as human guinea pigs to advance new treatments. In our minds, these practices and many others are barbaric, but it was not so in the respective centuries. Ethics surrounding scientific advancement favored knowledge over persons. If you doubt that, read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

Our knowledge is continually expanding. When I was in high school, I was taught that there were 3 parts to the cell and 3 parts to an atom. My grandchildren are learning that there are many layers to each of those cell structures and that the atom is much more complex. In high school, I never heard of gluons or quarks. It was not that textbook writers were lying or insidiously hiding information. The books contained only the general information a high school student needed to know.

It has been said that history is always told by the victors. When I consider the statues and monuments erected in bygone days, I always try to get into the mindset of those who chose to memorialize the person or event. I try to see the human story behind the monument. It doesn’t eliminate the reality that those monuments are being reinterpreted in the light of current information. It makes me wonder how future generations will examine the actions we are taking in this first quarter of the twenty-first century. I wonder who will be considered “victorious” four hundred years hence. Will our children’s children feel the need to tear down the and “debunk” the histories or “her-stories” being written today?

It has taken me sixty-five years to begin to understand my own motivations. I have to admit that suppositions regarding my ancestors’ motivations will never be completely accurate. Still, I continue to learn how to forgive shortcomings, my own and that of my forebears. I focus my attention on strengths and admirable qualities. I certainly hope that my great-great-grandchildren will look back at my lifetime with the same understanding and empathy. I hope that they will see that my generation did the best we could with the knowledge and understanding we had. I hope that they will see beyond the short-sighted weaknesses and ignorance. I hope they will emphasize the times we acted with courage, generosity, and concern for others. As the poet says, “Hope springs eternal!”

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