Dispatches from the History Major: "Living With the Past"

I hope you are enjoying “Dispatches from the History Major.”  Here is the next installment from Messiah College sophomore history major James Mueller.  –JF

I read a lot this past spring break. One of the books I read in order to prepare for my upcoming archaeology class in Cyprus this May was called Echoes from the Dead Zone.In this book, Cypriot native Yiannis Papadakis explores the complex and often virulent relationship between Greek and Turkish inhabitants of Cyprus. During his powerful account of living with both communities, Papadakis addresses issues of nationalism, religious and ethnic conflict, identity, empathy, reconciliation, and the power of historical memory. It was a good spring break.
But it was also a challenging one–a week where I was forced to wrestle with a question I couldn’t stop asking myself after I put down this book: what do we do when the past is painful and divisive? The Greek-Turkish historical narrative has certainly been distorted by the pitfalls of nationalism and collective memory; however, there’s no denying the violent and volatile relationship these two peoples have historically shared. Does the historian, trained to accurately recount and reflect upon past experiences, pick at the wounds of the past and perpetuate the mutual hatred of these two cultures by inquiring about wars, atrocities, and betrayals? Or does he allow these historical chapters to drift off into oblivion in order to uplift his community with the more positive and triumphant parts of human history?
The reason I think I struggled with this question so much was because it’s personal as well as academic. Maybe if you’re lucky, or just a remarkable person, you don’t regret parts of your history. However, I think it’s more likely that we all struggle with pieces of the past, and that sometimes these experiences still affect our relationships with God, family, friends, and other people in our surrounding community. 
I still haven’t answered this question.  The historian in me, who is unable to divorce himself from thinking in the medium of time, believes that in order to conquer a painful past, we need to accurately analyze and understand it. Only then can a person or a community come to terms with the pain and eventually heal. Only then can we make meaning of a difficult past, learn from it, and prevent it from haunting us for the rest of our lives.
The more realistic part of me realizes that history is never that simple. Most people don’t think in the dimension of time; and even if a group of people attempts to look backward in order to address their past, the subjective nature of interpretation and the fallacies of memory can twist the truth and make their history more destructive than it already was at the start. Greek and Turkish Cypriots were massacred because they engaged with their past like this. The truth doesn’t seem worth that price. Sometimes it seems more loving to purposefully forget the past in order to promote present and future reconciliation.

“Never forget.” “Forgive and forget.” These are the choices a historian has to make both professionally and personally every time he or she engages with the past. On a professional level, I’m going to continue my Rankean pursuit for historical truth. However, the wrestling match I had with the question over Spring Break didn’t leave me unscathed. It reminded me of the deep responsibility we have when we wield the past. It reminded me that good grades and book awards are far less important than respecting the people of the past. It reminded me that history is powerful. The shackles of the past are always present; it’s up to us whether we want to use history to liberate others or to keep them in chains.     

One thought on “Dispatches from the History Major: "Living With the Past"

  1. Or does he allow these historical chapters to drift off into oblivion in order to uplift his community with the more positive and triumphant parts of human history?

    Yes. Evil must be acknowledged but it's numbing in its sameness, its banality, common as dirt.

    The positive and triumphant parts of human history are rare and beautiful, and must be acknowledged as such or all is lost, the difference between coal and diamonds.


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