Tuesday, December 6, 2016

History meets humility.

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.


  1. So true. My dad once told me about his step-grandmother. Many years later, his brother talked to me about the step-grandmother. Their viewpoints were the exact opposite of one another. They remembered her totally different. I guess the truth lies somewhere in the middle....

    1. Thanks, Vicky, for the comment. Like they say, "The truth is out there."

  2. Good topic Rod. History comes down to us with the cache of fact. History is also a prismatic lens through which we view the past as seen by those who record it. The record may/or may not be faithful to actual fact. Then the passage of time further obscures the record. All this can lead to a line like the last in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: "When legend becomes truth, print the legend."

    1. Sometimes some of that may be true, Paul. But, often, rather than the passage of time obscuring the record, new information comes to light to illuminate the record.

      And while a line from a movie may sound clever, we should never stop searching for truth no matter how entrenched a "legend" may have become. Otherwise, we will continue to wallow in the ignorance--and hubris--of our incorrect knowledge.

  3. Didn't mean to suggest we surrender the search. Only that truth can be elusive and legend stubborn.

  4. You nailed it, sir. The filters applicable to any historical event would damned sure stop airflow right here and now.
    I think.
    I wish.
    Keep a strain on it, big man.