The past is still present
Events that took place in the past and people that lived before us are still present in many ways, perhaps the most alive way is through the people that exist today. As point IV of the Letter of Peace addressed to the UN points out: “…if History had been different, for better or worse, the future would have also been different. Likewise, through the course of the years there would have been other encounters, other links; other people would have been born, not us. None of those who have the gift of life today, would exist.” … Every one of them with their own biography defined by the historical moment they were born into. That includes times of peace, times of family conflict, migration, and a long list of causes and coincidences.
The issue is that we exist now without ever having asked to exist. History, or rather, the people who have existed throughout the years are the cause of our presence in this world. We are the fruit of people who have lived together peacefully and have built very valuable societies and institutions, but we are also the fruit of people who have died or been denigrated due to absurd causes. And this doesn’t make us good or bad, better or worse, dignified or undignified in the life we have been given. It simply makes us the beings that we are. Our only chance of existing is the result of everything that has happened. Any minor difference would have resulted in our non-existence. Discovering this evidence through real life experience implies an ontological shift.
History cannot be reversed
When we study history we focus our attention on past events. We must be aware that we cannot go back and undo or redo these things with the criteria we now have. We can describe history, but we cannot re-write it. It is great that history is irreversible! The very idea of wanting now to have done things differently then takes value away from things other people worked for in the past. In the eyes of someone from today an event could be catastrophic or beneficial for a region, country or group of people. However, for the people involved, it was perhaps the only option they had at that far off moment, regardless of what their beliefs might have been at the time. We could describe the act of conceiving the chronology of reality, or historical development through a contemporary framework as presentism.
Those who wish to study the history of an event in a humble way could first recognise that they embark on the task from a reality that is different to the moment being studied. No matter how much reliable information we have about the event in question, we were not there to witness it and truly have faith that it happened as we say it did. We can summarise this idea in the following way: “Right here, right now, I think it could have happened in such and such a way”. If you want to carry out a reliable and worthy investigation you must respect the reality that is the subject of your historical study for what it is.
People are the past
Often when we study history, we think of “the past” as an abstract construct. In reality history is not “something that happened to” the people who lived before us. History is the people themselves. Or, more to the point, the narrative of the things that human beings have experienced over time in specific geographical locations. History is people and it must be perceived as such, instead of reducing it to statistical dates and times. And, if people are multidimensional, so too is history. Each human being is made up of different dimensions, such as physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual and social dimensions, etc. Why not look at history as a complex of dimensions that make up a single body?
When we study a historical period, we must think about the people who were around at the time: their mentality, physical constitution, diet, work conditions, relationships in the home, social institutions that brought them together, understanding of life and death, methods of marginalization, how they exercised power, moral codes, relationship with nature… As well as the context in which they lived: the climate, ecosystem, natural catastrophes… and not just their own social surroundings but also the neighbours’ against whom small and large battles were fought.
Goodies and baddies
What makes us judge the past? It is probably the manichaeistic mentality that permeates many human conceptions. We tend to divide realities into good and bad. Or in other words, in the eyes of the judge, those that bring benefit or threat. Many “isms” are created through this tendency to divide the world into good and bad, such as racism, sexism, nationalism, classism, and fanaticism…
Within the study or pedagogy of history, Manichaeism is a filter that distorts reality because it categorizes people as good and bad. Human beings are not just good or just bad. We are complex beings, each with a personal story, psychology, sensitivity and biology that influence how we making decisions or our unconscious reactions. Therefore, not everything we do is good or bad, so we cannot be judged exclusively as goodies or baddies.
At different historical moments people or groups of people have committed terrible atrocities against others. These acts often mean that these periods become polarized through the study of history and good and bad sides are created or people are radically sanctified or demonized, stripping away all their human characteristics. The conclusion is more and more often being reached that there are no winners or losers in a war, everyone loses in many ways. Also, that there are no goodies or baddies in a war, just power dynamics, where one group takes advantage of another group’s situation or characteristics.
Historical study, transmission and pedagogy are often impregnated with some of the tendencies previously indicated, such as presentism, depersonalization and Manichaeism, amongst others. Thinking about other eras with the criteria of today, dating and dissecting them, like in a laboratory and labeling people as goodies or baddies, often polarizes history and provokes us to join in with this process of judgment. This is made worse when dealing with periods of war or even local or family conflicts. Today’s people are the fruit of people of the past. This means that we have emotional ties with our predecessors. If we are taught that others took advantage of or killed our ancestors, this could create anger that could then be projected onto the descendents of those who harmed “us”.
Many of today’s conflicts, including family differences are spurred on by inherited grudges. Family, ethnic, national, religious and cultural resentments come from the past. They must be studied calmly. It must also be emphasized that we are the fruit of history, but, as was previously mentioned, it was not our fault, nor are we responsible for it. We have been born into a particular time and place, but we did not ask for this to be the case. We cannot be blamed for what happened in the past, because we were not around to cause it to happen. Being aware of our current historical dimension frees us from the past.
An alternative option emerges
Freedom is not an abstract entity, it is a human ability embodied in realities. We are beings that are free from the past. We said before that the past is present in the people that exist now, but it is also present in the consequences of the past, such as economic or social situations, pervading institutions, cultural and artistic manifestations, customs, religious beliefs, scientific and technical knowledge, etc.
And yet, perhaps one of the realities that most embodies the past is collective historical memory. Yes, all the data, books, monuments, buildings, memories, legends, oral traditions, artistic manifestations and refrains used by a community of people to transmit history collectively. Patriotic sentiments of belonging and identity (amongst other things) are carried through in this collective memory… But feelings of resentment and hostility towards other collectives, countries, ethnicity and even other generations within the same collective are also carried here.
This is where an alternative option emerges. When we reach a state of awareness of the fact that we are free from the past, we can opt between feeding past resentments –even though we are not guilty of things that happened before we were alive-, being indifferent, or working to make all constructive and vitalizing aspects of society prevail over aspects that impoverish and destroy it.
Point IV of the Letter of Peace concludes that “…The surprise of existing will help those living today strive happily to right the wrongs caused by previous generations.” Working for a history of peace does not mean restricting the study of history to peaceful events, inter-war periods and peaceful figures, it also means contemplating the tapestry of history with realism, evaluating each moment with its whole spectrum of colours in order to learn about how people have done things in different situations in the hope of achieving and keeping a balanced coexistence or to heal war wounds. It also means demystifying historical mistakes or studying and uncovering peaceful day-to-day aspects of life and every day people that have helped secure important periods of peace, but go unnoticed in the big historical picture.