History is a messy subject. It’s never as simple as it ought to be. We tend to view history in black and white terms—good guys and bad guys, winners and losers, virtue and evil, right and wrong.
That’s particularly true when it comes to the history of something or someone near and dear to our hearts—our country, our people, our families. And it doesn’t stop there. This simplistic view of history devolves to the point that all semblance of actual knowledge gives way to belief, even wishful thinking.
And intellectual laziness. I read somewhere that instead of attempting to know what happened (which is no simple task), we cling to what we think happened, even what we wish had happened (which is much easier).
I once heard a radio interview with British actor Hugh Laurie. (House, Stuart Little, Jeeves and Wooster, Black Adder.) I remember only one thing he said, and it’s something I will never forget: “We must be humble in the face of facts.”
That bit of wisdom certainly applies to history. The facts of history—such as they are—are often uncomfortable. They sometimes contradict what we think (or wish or hope) happened. We squirm. We sweat. We tie ourselves in emotional knots. Our hearts and minds rebel. But, eventually, we must come to terms with a revised reality.
Facts, in fact, can change our entire way of thinking—as they should, like it or not, if we follow Hugh Laurie’s advice.
What happened back when happened. We ought to know the facts of the matter as much as we can, with the knowledge that more facts may come to light and alter our understanding.
But that’s what humility is all about when it comes to history—basing the knowledge we have on facts rather than beliefs, and knowing that what we don’t know always outweighs what we do.