I enjoyed studying history in college as long as the professor doing the lecturing was a reasonably good storyteller. For instance, I had two excellent professors my first semester-and-a-half of Western Civilization. These two men made everything from the Greeks to the Enlightenment sound pretty interesting and I generally looked forward to their class. But when we came to the 20th century a specialist in modern history was recruited to do the lecturing. This man always wore the same rumpled brown sweater and made World War II sound like a dinner squabble. I daydreamed my way through Stalin’s purges.
But I think my falling out with history, and college in general, occurred in the middle of my freshman year. On this day I received a letter from my girlfriend informing me that our long distance relationship was not going to work. The letter flattened me. I should point out that I would marry this very girl ten years later, but I did not know that at the time I received the letter. Carrying this news in my heart, I trudged off to history during which I had to take an essay quiz where I was asked to offer my thoughts on the impact of liberal democracies on the French Revolution. Unfortunately, my only thoughts were, “None of this means anything whatsoever.”
History is a story we are constantly telling ourselves about all that has ever happened to everyone. We cannot repeat it because there will never be another Hitler or Julius Caesar or Joan of Arc. What repeats itself over and over again is the desire within every human being to express their unique and inimitable life at the same time every other human being is trying to express their unique and inimitable life. This confluence creates infinite challenges and potential, from wars and famines to cathedrals and symphonies, all of it in the name of humanity’s desire for authentic expression.
At eighteen I had begun to understand that love in some form or another was the only thing that mattered to me. There is, after all, no more authentic expression than love, whether love of stories, food, politics, or another person. I’m sure my professors loved history, but there we parted ways. If you love the story we call history, then love on, but know that we retell the story of our past for the same reason we tell all stories, whether real or wholly imagined: not to understand what has happened, but to acquire a lens of metaphor through which to see the present moment and reveal in its new refraction what we love most.