Understanding our history: A Backward Look To See the Future

By Mark Svetz

December 2017

 

Hindsight is 20-20. I've heard that many times in my life, and often it seems to be true. Twenty-twenty or not, if we don't understand what we're looking at, it doesn't really matter how clearly we can see.

These particular thoughts come to me right now following a conversation with Sarah. She described pulling out of a driveway, and after several backward glances, realized there were many blind spots and she wasn't sure whether there was traffic coming. Hindsight, it seems, is not always 20-20!

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At any rate Sarah pulled onto the highway, and everything was fine. A short distance down the road, another vehicle pulled out in front of her. The car was close, Sarah had to slow a bit, but what she told me was how easy it is when you look forward. To Sarah, this meant it was easy for her to adjust her speed and accommodate the entering vehicle.

This reminded me of just how much 'accommodation' is required of us in the daily give and take of life in community. A great teacher once told me, “Education is change and always remember that we make change from strength, not weakness.” As a teacher, I always took this to mean it was my job to help people strengthen and empower themselves to get ready to make the change that is learning.

In our parable of Sarah on the highway, she was telling me that her clear vantage gave her the strength to adjust her speed and let the new vehicle enter traffic easily. This brings me back to the whole idea of looking back. Knowledge and understanding are always empowering and, of course, one of the necessary elements for change. If there is one thing clear to me today, it is that we need change in how we view ourselves and our nation.

I am thinking now of the many tragic events that have occurred recently, this time of the violence that occurred in Charlottesville, VA, during a rally of white supremacists. One of the central themes of this conflict was about statues of Confederate soldiers and leaders in public places. Because the Confederacy is entangled in history with slavery and modern racism, these statues made many of us uncomfortable. Others seem to believe the removal of these reminders was some sort of purge, aimed at sanitizing our history.

The hindsight of some journalists helped crystalize this subject for me, when I learned that many of these statues were erected in the 1960s as a backlash against the Civil Rights Movement. So, it seems the historic record we are protecting here is that of selfish and violent resistance to human rights and the progress of human dignity. This makes the question a little easier for me.

Our past is not a static collection of images and facts to be recalled or forgotten. Rather, it is a progress of events, large and small, that must be perceived, understood and reconciled with the present circumstances. When Sarah saw the car approach the stop sign on the side street, she was able to take this information and use it to make the change she needed to make, and the result was the smooth flow of traffic.

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The smooth flow of life in our communities also requires us to make constant adjustments and accommodations. I like Sarah's example where she saw her better vantage as a responsibility to accommodate the other vehicle. I similarly believe those of us who feel the sting of the reminders of slavery, for example, could be more easily accommodated if we all searched for that better vantage of understanding.

As we sit in coffee shops and living rooms talking about these events, I hope we think about them and their historic context. In the case of Charlottesville, it was important to be clear about just what history we are preserving. Our perception of the past – whether the historic past, or behind us on the highway – should help us decide what we are going to do next. Whether it's to slow down for the entering vehicle, listen to those who are offended by statues celebrating the Confederate States of America or cast a vote on a school bonding package. Knowledge is power and it gives us the strength to make the changes we need to make.

As this year winds down and I think about all that has happened, I believe I will look for clues about my next steps. Do I need to slow down for that car up ahead? Is that belief I have held for so long still valid in light of new information? Does my neighbor need help with the sidewalks this winter? Have a great New Year!