• Matthew Emerson

Why Study the Past?


We've developed an addiction for vintage and old things.

Old things are cool.


Old people tell great stories. Things just aren't as good as they used to be. The "good ole days" are constantly chased after. Why? What is it about the past that fascinates us so much?


Well, partially it's that there is a certain safety in the past. We like the tried and true. We can take comfort in its familiarity. We know what the past was like. We know what the best moments were. The future is far more mysterious.


And mysterious is dangerous.


Let's strip away the sentimentality. The future is terrifying. For all you know you could die, be diagnosed with cancer, lose your sick grandma, and insert tragedy here. Of course, it's silly to suggest that the future is utterly grim. In even the most bitter lives, there are bright spots. In our risk-averse culture, however, it is generally easier to assume that the future holds more trouble than reward. And that is, well, troubling.


Unhappily, the present isn't too much better. Again, it isn't that there aren't pleasures to be had in the moment. It's simply that these things are temporary. "Fleeting" is the word the Christian Scriptures use to describe it. It's here and then it's gone. Even if we are generous to the present, and say that it's the day from when you wake up til you fall asleep, that's still not much time. Complicating things, however, is that the present is merely the moment, not the sum of hours in a day. Just think about how many shifts in mood or thought you've have today alone. Pretty daunting. So that rules out the present.


But why the past? Why do we yearn for good days gone by? Well...


The past provides stability.

Always growing, yet never changing--that's how the old riddle describes our past. The past simply is. There is at least the illusion of fixedness, and we can rest in that. Our memories are like little nooks in our heads that we can retreat to when the present is in flux and the future uncertain. But is there any help in simply imagining our past? Maybe a fuzzy feeling that dissipates all to quickly. Typically, something more tangible is needed: An item, a sight, a smell. Our psyches crave a solidified reminder that the past did, in fact, happen.


Hence yearbooks, photos, and the Facebook "memories" feature. Our society is teeming with monuments to the past. These tangible memories are pretty cool, functioning as fossils of the old days. Depending on the strength of the scene they represent, these items can even house emotions and feelings.


And they are everywhere! Think of the vinyl craze that is still going strong--or the re-release of Polaroid cameras. You could have a brand new Gibson Les Paul, or one made in the 1970s that's seen more bars than a struggling country singer. If you could get them at the same price, I'd argue many would take the older one. I can hear them saying "imagine the stories it could tell."


But it can't, it's a guitar. Logically, that's the truth. But it's not the truth that our behavior testifies to.


Guitars don't have memories, but it's the potential of what the guitar has seen that attracts us to it. I know I love old clothes (or at least old-fashioned clothes). I'll take an old overcoat over a modern Columbia rain-jacket any day. Of course, this isn't true of everyone. I've got a friend who has enough of the latest hiking gear to ascend Everest on a whim. But he's got his own weakness: Old black-and-white cinema. The craving for old stuff is the same, even if the remedy is different.


Nor is this fascination limited to the realm of the physical. It extends into the world of ideas too. Great literary figures like T.S. Eliot suggested that all our modern ideas are simply bricks of past thoughts stacked on top of each other. And, generally, we act as if this is true. Throughout Christianity (as well as Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism) contemporary thinkers scoured the writings of their predecessors for quotes that supported their own ideologies. The Tea Party movement in America ushered in a renewed interest in our Founding Fathers, suggesting that we look to them for guidance in the political realm of today.


Now, there is a certain temptation in all of this. We might feel an urge, for instance, to view those who've tread the Earth before us as some sort of magical figures. Yet those men and women were every bit as human as you and I. They faced all the same existential threats: War, disease, famine, the whole nine yards.


The original Ipod.

"Maybe when I'm thirty, that's when I'll really be an adult."


I've heard that one a time or two :)


But in a universe some scientists believe to be around thirteen-billion years old, thirty years of human life is irrelevant. Some trendy postmodernist thought has arisen to address this issue, but it too is irrelevant on an Earth some scientists believe is around four-billion years old (yikes, awkward). No matter what we can dredge up from the past, it pales in comparison to the almost infinite life of the universe around us. We can snuggle up to as many artifacts as we please, and bury ourselves in the deepest fantasy, but we can't escape reality. Still, as troubling as all of this is, it isn't the end of the story...


The past can teach us how to make the future better.

Sure, the average life span of a human being isn't much when compared to that of the whole wide world; but all of recorded human history matters a whole lot when compared to the eighty or so years you and I will probably be around. And, looking ahead, your life will matter a whole lot to those who come after you. Now, they probably won't know it, but they'll owe their entire existence to you. Our most advanced theories of mathematics, for instance, owe their genesis to the basic observation about geometry made by Pythagoras in ancient Greece. So, you could do something that matters. This is one of the special insights of Christianity.


I'll explain: When the Buddha, originally a young and worldly prince, saw the suffering in the world, he realized he needed to transcend that suffering. In Buddhism, Enlightenment is achieved through realizing Nirvana--which is the oblivion that comes when all attachment to the temporal world is severed. This happens, generally, when the individual realizes that their individuality, the significance of their own life, is nonexistent. They don't matter. But if they don't matter, then they don't suffer.


Christianity, on the other hand, acknowledges suffering--but it also posits that there is a type of suffering that is worthwhile. In the Christian faith, each person matters to the eternal Being who infinitely predates the cosmos. And, fascinatingly, God is interested in both reducing our suffering, and rewarding those of us who suffer in the service of others. This is part of why Christ goes around feeding the hungry and healing the sick, because these activities genuinely matter. Not in the scope of human history, but in the scope of the Creator's vision for human history.


And when seen in this light, the past isn't a chronology of meaningless emotions. It is the unfolding of a good thing easily lost sight of behind all the bad things that obscure it.


And that has a certain appeal to it. After all, that means each new day holds all the potential of the entire past which came before it.


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