Village News (June 27, 2019)
By Andrea Dyck
“Don’t Write That Down”: Dealing with an Imperfect Past
There are many things I enjoy about the work that I get to do at Mennonite Heritage Village (MHV) and one of these is the ability to sit in the living rooms of strangers in front of some object the person is donating to the museum’s artefact collection and to hear its story. By hearing the story of the object, I also often become privy to the stories of the person who owned it and to their family and friends.
Some memories are easy to recall because they make us happy, proud, or bring to mind fond memories of people, times, and places. Others, however, can bring pain, perhaps embarrassment, remorse, anger, or pity. What do we do with a past (our own or our family’s) we would rather not have and certainly don’t want to share in the public?
When a story goes from easy to difficult, the person sitting across from me will often pause, look at me, and utter a phrase I hear more frequently than you might expect: “Don’t write that down.” I always respect the wishes of the person speaking to me; after all, it’s not my history and I can’t know how difficult it is for them to share it. This phrase often introduces a discussion about what we do with an imperfect past.
What is the cost of painting the past just as we wish it to be? If we could eliminate the difficult parts, would we? Should we? Think about it, if we get rid the parts of an ancestor’s history that make us squirm (perhaps we see a tendency to racism in this person’s past, or a decision that we, with the benefit of hindsight, can see had horrible consequences), with what does that leave us today? A shiny, impeccable past, certainly. But try relating to the characters that people that perfect past. Try imagining their humanity. You can’t. People and humanity are not shiny, impeccable, or perfect. Every life is comprised of the choices a person made and each choice feeds into the next. Removing one key choice or specific event creates a past with a gaping hole, and that gaping hole creates a character that is altogether foreign from the flesh and blood person who actually lived. Papering over the past, and trying to eliminate the hard parts of the story, does not honour or protect an ancestor. It just makes that person unreachable and unrecognizable to those of us in the present. How can we, as imperfect people, relate to a perfect past? We simply can’t.
Difficult histories are hard, but at its best, these situations can be times for courage, empathy, and curiosity.
Courage for the person telling the story might mean finally facing the past. For the listener, courage might mean the nerve to listen to the story in its entirety rather than interject or jump to conclusions. Empathy for both listener and storyteller could mean that we extend to those who have preceded us the grace to be actual human beings, to allow them to have made stupid choices, awful mistakes, or decisions that we can’t stomach today. (After all, we expect grace and empathy in our lives when – not if – we make similarly bad decisions or say stupid things.) And curiosity is something we can all extend to the past, being curious about where we come from, how we got here, and why people made the decisions they made. It takes courage, empathy, and curiosity to recognize history is not usually black and white and that most of our living takes us into the gray areas in between certainties.
American historian Paul A. Kramer from Vanderbilt University, in an essay entitled “History in a Time of Crisis,” once wrote: “History can easily become a quarry from which only select materials are extracted, leaving large, treacherous holes. And there is, along with the condescension, the enormous narcissism of posterity, a tendency to fabricate ancestors that make our own existence a matter of happy destiny. Even as we struggle against inescapability, we must not limit our search to only those ancestors whose descendants we care to be.” (emphasis mine) When we try to re-make the past into something we’re comfortable with, it is simply bad history. By contrast, Kramer describes “good history” not as raking our ancestors over the coals for mistakes they made or for their embarrassing blunders, but instead, it is: “reach[ing] out empathically to those who came before: to make sense of past actors, their mental worlds and the circumstances they faced not strictly on their terms, or ours, but on the complicated ground between. It requires a balance of critique […] and generosity, an acknowledgement of humanity’s limits, the constraints that our times lay upon us, and the very contingency of our criteria.”
Good history is acknowledging the humanity (which includes the good as well as the bad) of those who have come before us. After all, don’t we hope for that kind of empathy from the future historians studying us and our actions?