Lots of people think that history is simply automatically generated by world events and catastrophes, and that it just sits out there in the ether waiting for some historian to write it down. In fact, our relationship with history is much more complicated. The historian is not a mere passive transcriber of events, but an active co-creator of a narrative, or, as historians are fond of saying, a “usable past.” The raw material for a historian is the chaotic, relentless stream of good, bad, or just plain weird events that bombard us every day. Hopefully, the finished product is a coherent story with a beginning, middle, and end, a discernible direction, and relatable human appeal.
Now, I realize that this sounds shockingly postmodern of me, because I am implying that it is the historian or storyteller who imposes meaning on events, rather than the events having meaning in themselves. In fact, some bias or slant on the part of the narrator is absolutely inevitable, but here I am only arguing for a relative, not absolute, flexibility of meaning in history.
I, personally, have the rather apophatic viewpoint that there is an inner meaning and ultimate direction to historical events, but that we, from our limited human perspective, can’t reliably discern it. Atheists, on the other hand, would argue for the complete meaninglessness of the raw stream of world events, or at least that they are meaningless until human intelligence imposes historical meaning upon them. What I have to say here, however, applies to both the theistic and atheistic points of view.
Even if you do believe that there is a benign, guiding intelligence or supreme being behind all of history, I would caution against the path of discerning divine will in individual events. That way leads to a kind of selective triumphalism in which believing historians highlight all the events favorable to their particular creed, and gloss over all the embarrassing bits. With the right spin, you could easily argue that Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, or whatever is clearly- clearly!– the one true religion. I tend to think that one’s beliefs should be a matter of, well, belief, and not need the confirmation of signs, marvels, or a particular version of history. Besides that, claiming that you can see divine will in historical events is just plain presumptuous.
At any rate, the burden of finding meaning in events, on the worldly, non-spiritual level, more or less falls to us. Without realizing it, every one of us is a historian, for we all piece together select events from the bewildering patchwork of our total life experiences to create coherent stories with direction, narrative momentum, and an ultimate goal.
Imagine if someone tried to tell his story by presenting an unedited catalog of everything that had happened to him in life. “When he was seven he developed an inordinate fondness for a green t-shirt with velociraptors on it, which he attempted to wear every day. He also went to the beach with his family in the summer, and caught pneumonia that fall,” and so on. This is not the kind of story which would be interesting to anyone who did not know the person in question. It probably wouldn’t be interesting even to most people who did.
What we want is something like, “Since early childhood, David displayed an irrepressible and curious spirit. This would get him into trouble in high school, but eventually fuel his drive to make the discovery that would revolutionize archaeology in the 21st century,” and so forth.
Obviously, historians do not fashion narratives on the life of every human being, although I often amuse myself by wondering what someone would write about mine. We do, however, all make histories of ourselves, for ourselves. You have probably done this without even being conscious of it- I’m sure you’ve already designated the Hero, the Villain, the Love of Your Life, and the Pivotal Moment in your life story. Of course, the ones who occupy these roles will sometimes shift as your life goes on, because your story will have many chapters.
We can scarcely experience anything without turning it into narrative. Even minor setbacks or pleasures will be woven into the overall direction or theme of your life’s story. Healthy, resilient individuals deal with failure and tragedy by identifying it, in their minds, as an obstacle they must overcome in pursuit of their ultimate goal, even if that ultimate goal is simply happiness. They do not allow the tragedy to become, itself, the Pivotal Moment.
We all struggle to ensure that the negative version of events, our lives’ shadow-narratives, do not become our main narratives. Shadow-narratives are the stories that develop alongside the positive narratives we construct. They focus on our failures, flaws, and vices, and offer an account of our lives as a downward spiral, rather than an upwards climb.
Nations, by the way, have shadow-narratives as well. For every Normandy landing of the United States, there is also a Guantanamo Bay. As C.S. Lewis said of his native Britain, “Haven’t you noticed that we are two countries? After every Arthur, a Mordred; behind every Milton, a Cromwell; a nation of poets, a nation of shopkeepers; the home of Sidney – and of Cecil Rhodes. . . This haunting is no peculiarity of ours. Every people has its own haunter.”
Every life has its own haunter. Sometimes they arise from our own fears and complexes, and sometimes they are the stories that our enemies and critics tell about us. Shadow-narratives can sometimes be quite fascinating and helpful, because we can learn from our aversions as well as our aspirations. They only become harmful when we buy into them.
Don’t let the shadow-narratives dictate your life story, and most of all don’t let other people dictate your life story. Before you study other histories, be a historian for yourself.