Don’t Pass Over History

Who are you? What are you?

The answers define your identity and give you a sense of place in the universe.

The “who” question has a simple answer: your name.

But the “what” question has many answers. You are a son or daughter. You might be a lawyer, homemaker, software engineer, or painter. Some of the answers touch your soul more deeply than others. Those are important ones. Many of them come from history.

People often think that history is just about facts. Facts are part of it, but only a part. History weaves facts into an intellectual and emotional tapestry that tells us who we are, what our lives are about, and what kind of people we should strive to be. History:

  • Helps us understand the past by telling us what happened and when.

Even if the “why” is often ambiguous, some explanations are more consistent with the evidence than others.

  • Helps us understand the present by comparing it with the past.

The same problems tend to recur in different societies and historical periods. We can learn from what worked or didn’t work in past situations.

  • Helps us be good people by telling us stories of heroism and villainy.

Morality depends on both reason and feeling. No matter how sophisticated we get, our moral sense begins partly with “I want to be like him / her.” History provides examples that help us develop both the rational and emotional sides of morality.

  • Helps us maintain a strong sense of personal and group identity.

Inspiring historical stories encourage us to identify with our group’s heroes and to feel a personal connection to events in our group’s history.

  • Helps us maintain successful communities by legitimizing the social order.

To survive, any group or society must believe that it is good (even if it’s imperfect), and that it deserves to survive. Inspiring historical stories about the group’s origin, leaders, and ideals provide that foundation.

History’s various jobs sometimes conflict with each other.

For example, tonight is the first night of Passover, a Jewish holiday that celebrates freedom by commemorating the ancient Israelites’ exodus from Egypt. But it does more than that. In the Passover seder (meal), families ritually affirm their identity as Jews, their people’s relationship to God, and the moral ideals they should follow. Historical evidence is scant, but factual accuracy isn’t relevant to the stories’ main jobs of supporting morality while reinforcing personal and group identity.

The stories associated with Christianity’s Easter holiday are similar. Historical evidence is scant, but the stories’ most important jobs are moral and spiritual.

Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

About N.S. Palmer

N.S. Palmer is an American mathematician.
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