We tackle heavy subjects at this site, but occasionally we throw in a change of pace. My Dad was a fount of homespun wisdom and sayings. Three of them immediately spring to mind. “Water seeks its own level,” meaning (for him) that you don’t have to coddle talented kids—they’ll find their own path in life. “The peaches don’t drop too far from the tree,” meaning kids are often a lot like their parents, even when (especially when) they take pains to deny it. And “The cream rises to the top.”
That last one is less than obvious to today’s generation. In these days of homogenized milk, many people have no experience skimming the cream from the top of a glass bottle or bucket of milk. But my father did. He recounts his experience in a short anecdote he titled, “A full mess cup,” when he was in the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1937:
We were in a rest area [in Oregon] when the pickup truck loaded with five gallon cans of fresh milk came in.
I was first in line with my mess cup. I guess it held more than a pint. Those days milk wasn’t homogenized. Being first my cup was filled with 100% cream. Who thought of fat and cholesterol in those days? What a taste treat.
Sometimes it pays to be first in line, especially when you can skim the cream from the top.
My father’s fourth saying? It’s one of my favorites: “The empty barrel makes the most noise.” I think of this whenever I encounter blowhards — someone like Donald Trump, perhaps?
As a historian, I like to think we learn valuable lessons from history. Those who don’t learn from the mistakes of the past are condemned to repeat them, or so my students tell me, paraphrasing (often unknowingly) the words of George Santayana.
We applaud that saying as a truism, yet why do we persist in pursuing mistaken courses? Why two costly and destructive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Why an energy policy that exploits dirty fossil fuels at the expense of the environment? Why a foreign policy that is dominated by military interventionists in love with Special Forces and drones?
In part, I think, because our decision makers have no respect for the lessons of history. They think the lessons don’t apply to them. They think they can make history freely: that history is like a blank canvas for their creative (and destructive) impulses. They figure they are in complete control. Hubris, in other words.
Such hubris was captured in a notorious boast of the Bush Administration (in words later attributed to Karl Rove) that judicious study of the past was, well, antiquarian and passé. Why? Because men like Karl Rove would strut the historical stage to create an entirely new reality. And the rest of us would be reduced to impotent watchers, our only role being to applaud the big swinging dicks at their climactic “mission accomplished” moments. In Rove’s words:
“We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
Rove’s rejection of history stemmed from hubris. For the character of Joaquin in Scott Anderson’s novel Triage, history is “The worst invention of man” for a very different reason. History was to be reviled because it tries to make rational what is often irrational; history invents reasons for what is often unreasonable or beyond reason.
In Joaquin’s words:
“We invented history for the same reason we invented God, because the alternative is too terrible to imagine. To accept that there is no reason for any of it, that we are only animals—special animals, maybe, but still animals—and there is no explaining the things we do, that happen to us—too awful, no? … To hell with history. If there is anything to be learned from any of it, it is only that civilization is fragile, that in war it takes nothing for a man—any man, fascist, communist, schoolteacher, peasant, it doesn’t matter—to become a beast.”
As a good Catholic, I was taught that wisdom begins with the fear of God. A secular version might be that wisdom begins with the fear of history. Our history. Because it teaches us what we’re capable of. We invent all sorts of seemingly reasonable excuses to kill one another. We grow bored, so we kill. In the words of Joaquin, we come to slaughter one another “because we wanted to see how blood ran, because it seemed an interesting thing to do. We killed because we could. That was the reason.”
The beginning of wisdom is not the fear of God. It’s the fear of ourselves—the destruction that we as humans are capable of in the name of creating new realities. The historical record provides a bible of sorts that records our harshness as well as our extraordinary capacity for self-deception. Such knowledge is not to be reviled, nor should it be dismissed.
The more we dismiss history—the more we exalt ourselves as unconstrained creators of new realities—the more we pursue policies that are unwise—perhaps even murderously so. If we learn nothing else from history, let us learn that.
There’s a wonderful little scene in Anne Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, in which she talks to her priest about finding inner peace. As Anne strives for a sense of serenity in the world, her interlocutor gives her some sage advice:
The world can’t give that serenity. The world can’t give us peace. We can only find it in our hearts.
To which Anne replies, I hate that.
And to which her confessor replies,
I know. But the good news is that by the same token, the world can’t take it away.
I’ve always been struck by the words from Luke 17:21, “for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.”
If you can find that “kingdom of God” within yourself, if you can find a realm of peace and serenity inside of your heart, then the external world can’t take it away.