Saturday, July 5, 2014

Some Thoughts on History

About six months ago, the LDS stake I belong to organized its fiftieth anniversary since its organization. I've actually been a member of this stake for quite a long time beginning when I first moved here after college graduation. We were not sure we were going to attend, but our newly called stake president visited our ward and strongly encouraged it and so we did. Dragging our four young children a long with us for, if my memory serves me correctly, a two hour presentation that mostly involved a survey of every stake president that served in the stake since its inception. It covered slightly more ground than this, but that was mostly it.

Now, this was interesting, and there was something to be learned from it and it would have been much more challenging to do this differently. But obviously, the stake is much, much more than its president and most of my experience within the stake involves much more my relationships with individual members than with those who lead it.

But if you look at the history of anything, you will mostly find that history to be dominated by the leaders of the relevant institutions. Study world history, and you'll mainly be studying kings, monarchs, dictators, and presidents. Study state history, and you'll be learning about mayors and governors with some other notables mixed in. The point here is that the least notable you are the more likely you will be forgotten, which is actually a very depressing thing to consider.

This is one reason why I think family history is so powerful. Family history is the art of giving life to your own ancestors, no matter how obscure they were to the world at large, they definitely have a preeminent role in your own personal existence and largely had a more interesting life than you realize.

But let me make an even bigger claim. In learning about the life of the obscure, the neglected or the forgotten, you will actually get a better sense of history than in the far more common study of the elite. Even more controversially, the famous and the elite take a far too prominent claim on the course of history than they really should. In other words, individual people, no matter how powerful their position may have been, have far less control over world events then our history books would have us believe.

I will make a far too feeble attempt to prove this hypothesis here, but let me at least provide a couple of pieces of evidence to provide at least some reason for this claim:

First, for some time, I've been wading my way through the book The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914. One of the themes of the book as I've been able to make sense of it, was that this massive century affecting war actually came about out of an array of contradictory forces that no one individual could control. And the result of those forces led the world into a war that nobody had the power to stop. I'm over-simplifying a bit. But the point is that it was cultural forces that were created primarily from individual members of mostly European countries that pushed the world into war and leadership were powerless at best or unwilling at worst to stop it.

But then, you could point to World War II as having a single bad actor - Adolph Hitler - who was principally responsible. There may be some truth to this. But anti-semitism was rampant in Europe at this time and Germany was punished harshly after World War I. Some may say that Hitler simply took advantage of the forces already set forth and if not him, than someone else may have kicked off the second world war with all of the atrocities that occurred along with it. What I'm saying is that world leaders get their power from the large number of people who hand it to them.

Another example, from American History. Recently I listened to this podcast with Danielle Allen author of a recently published book, Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality. In the interview she makes the point that this country was based on the principle of both freedom and equality. That all of us, every single one of us is responsible to make sure the government is created to provide opportunities for all, "laying on its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."

I think we make this mistake often, paying the CEO's of companies more money than they could possibly hope to spend while forgetting about the contributions of the folks within the company who have a role in executing the vision but in many ways even creating the vision of the company. Apple was never just Steve Jobs.

Recently, I began another attempt to read Jude the Obscure, by Thomas Hardy. I'm interested in it because I am interested in those who tend to be marginalized and obscured in our society and by history. And this was especially prevalent in 19th century England. I've read the first three chapters which describes the central character of the book, Jude. In chapter two, he's given the job of scaring crows away from the corn fields, something he ends up not doing well:
He sounded the clacker till his arm ached, and at length his heart grew sympathetic with the birds' thwarted desires. They seemed, like himself, to be living in a world which did not want them. Why should he frighten them away? They took upon them more and more the aspect of gentle friends and pensioners - the only friends he could claim as being in the least degree interested in him, for his aunt had often told him that she was not. He ceased his rattling, and they alighted anew.
They (the crows) stayed and ate, inky spots on the nut-brown soil, and Jude enjoyed their appetite. A magic thread of fellow-feeling united his own life with theirs. Puny and sorry as those lives were, they much resembled his own.
The problem here is that it's really hard to get into the lives of the obscure. They typically are not writing memoirs, nobody is writing their biographies, movies are not being made about them. Fiction is where you can learn about them, perhaps. And that is what I'm doing here.

But really, it's not that hard to get into the lives of the obscure because in the end, it seems like most of use at times feel this way (or will eventually). Feeling forgotten, alone, or neglected is likely a part of the human condition and something we will all have to endure at some time or another.

It's too bad we fail to recognize the contribution of the masses because in the end, they likely have far more to do with the course of our world than we realize.

1 comment:

Hoopswim said...

I like what you've written here. I'd like to think I've never heard of some of the best people who have ever lived. I also think they might like it that way. It helps me continue with my own obscure life... knowing that I may not make the history books, but the life I lived was a good and influential one. After all the question is not about how the world necessarily forgets or remembers me, but what role have I played in God's history book and secondarily my family's? I also like what you wrote about family history. I just came across a fact about my 3rd Great Grandmother who joined the LDS Church in England. Her husband did not choose to join. She must have felt compelled to gather with the saints as she brought herself and her then seven living children on a ship to New Orleans, steamed up the Mississippi, joined a wagon train to Salt Lake where she settled in Bloomington, Idaho. I wish I knew more of her story, but what I do know is more significant to me personally than anything the King of England was doing at the time. I'm thankful for her story.