History is a waste of time. Why bother with the past? What is the point of remembering dates, names and events of the past? What relevance can occurrences in the long distant past possible have for my life? I was determined, in my youth, not to waste my life on such irrelevancies. My dream, my obsession, from my earliest years of memory was to go to college, to become and engineer, and to traffic in the factual, concrete, immediate, and productive. No liberal arts dilettante was I to be.

Tommie Smith & John Carlos
1968 Olympics

I did achieve my dream. I did receive my engineering degree. But my career ended before I left the school door. I was swept into the whirlwind of war, political protests, civil rights marches and murders, the women’s movement and new morals, social unrest and burning cities, and assassinations of prominent leaders and activists that rocked the country in the mid and late 60’s. The comforting stability of my childhood and teens was shattered. I became aware of the importance of more than numbers and facts. Aware of life, its depth, its complexities, and its confusions that cannot be captured in numbers and facts; indeed, it is eviscerated by the clean certainties of engineering. Why are we in Viet Nam? Why are my age-mates being drafted and killed? Why must I be drafted and killed? What does it mean to be a man? A woman? To be White? Straight? An American?

All these assumptions, previously so transparently obvious, now so unclear and troubling. The transparent and the obvious was bequeathed by history. History was now powerfully, personally, present in my life, as I lived in a history-changing time of turbulence, upheaval, and change. The boundary between history, that dusty attic of the past, and my life, in all its concrete particulars, now erased. “What is a man?” It is a historical question. It is a cultural question. It is a personal question. It is something felt in the deepest regions of my being, in my blood and guts. So, too, the other questions of race, war, citizenship and sexual orientation.

Now, many years later, in my retirement, I am free to read anything I desire, and what I desire, almost to obsession, is historical fiction. The experiences of individuals long removed from my time and place, fictional to be sure, but if well written, quite real in their own sense, leap across the chasm of time and context, joining me to them, personally. We share a common humanity of hopes, fears, suffering, and joy. Their plight I understand. What we don’t share is the historical and personal context: living as a scholar in 18th century China,1 a courtesan in Renaissance Italy,2 or a Black cop in the post WWII American South,3 for example. The jarring differences disorient and sensitize me to the specific uniqueness of my historical and personal context.

I realize that I am being transported by authors’ imaginative catapults into the past that undoubtedly carry the baggage and biases of our own contemporary context. No worries. The past is a foreign country, largely inaccessible, and these leaps highlight the benefits of historical understanding, however imperfect, of our plight. The benefits are many:

Compassion. Compassion for all those whose suffering has been so great, whose lives have been so tragic, so brief, so impoverished. Compassion for those who have endured injustice of a most brutal kind: slavery, torture, murder, rape. For those who have endured illness and disease, poverty, privation, and war. For those whose lives have been marked by tragedy, loss, misery, and madness. The daily tidal wave of human suffering and misery brings me to silence and sorrow.

Horror. Horror at the capacity for cruelty and murderous brutality in the human heart. At the unending atrocities that litter every corner of human life and time. Horror at the callous disregard of suffering—indeed, the delight in watching and inflicting it. Horror at the consuming destruction wrought by greed, avarice, pride, and jealousy. At the indifference to all this.

Surprise. Surprise at the irrepressible humor, the joy, the playfulness that endures in every circumstance no matter how difficult or dire. Surprise at the resiliency of the human spirit that rises from the ashes of war, famine, pestilence, plague, and gross injustice.

Humbled. Humbled by the courage, strength, and fortitude of so many in times of unimaginable hardship. Humbled by their audacity, their sacrifices so others may live, thrive, and profit. By the generosity of those who had so little who gave so much. Humbled by those who have given their lives for the safety and health of others; given their lives for justice and for peace. By those who have loved in the midst of sorrow, loss, hunger, and privation. Humbled by the concern, compassion, and love shown by so many who have extended their hand, often at their own risk, to help others.

Gratitude. Gratitude for my privileged life. Gratitude to those who have gone before me, whose bounty I have been given, underserved, at my birth—democracy, modern medicine and clean running water; a cornucopia of foods, goods, and services within easy reach; metals, glass, plastics, indoor heating, cooling, and plumbing; etc.; etc. I am now sensitized to these, aware of their presence when I take a shower (a shower inside my house? Really?!) and go about my daily life.

Solidarity. Solidarity in belonging to the vast numbers of humans who have walked, crawled, skipped, jumped, and hobbled on this planet. Solidarity in the shared journey, from life to death.

Understanding. Understanding that our present moment of protest, racism, and injustice is a continuation of the “arc of the moral universe that bends toward justice.”4 Understanding that I live in a history-changing time of turbulence, upheaval, and change that calls me to be responsible for the future, to be held accountable, to contribute to that long moral arc.

Astonishment. Each book situates my experience within the broader circumference human of life, deepens my appreciation of who I am in all its random contingency, and astonishes me to find myself, here, now, at this point in time and place for my brief moment.

Acceptance. Acceptance that I will soon join the past, fade from view, but happy to have been present and a part of the grand flux of it all.

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  1. See Elsa Hart’s Li Du series.
  2. See Sarah Durant, In the Company of the Courtesan. One of several wonderfully engaging novels by Durant about women in Renaissance Italy.
  3. See Thomas Mullen’s Darktown series.
  4. Martin Luther King.