“Not until we are lost, in other words, not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.” — Henry David Thoreau, Walden
My grandfather was an historian and a college teacher who filled me with a love for history and a respect for those who write it. I was raised by my grandparents, teachers both, and our home was packed with books, magazines, and journals, many of them about ancient history, medieval history, and modern history. My first understanding was that history told the story of what had happened long ago, that it was a true and valid record of those events, and that it stood in the same relation to the Eternal Verities as the Law. One learned and believed History and one kept the Law. Neither was profitably to be questioned.
These beliefs, solidified and tested by teachers in elementary school, were gently but firmly undermined by my grandfather’s tutelage. History, he said, was what historians reconstructed from written documents, eyewitness accounts, physical evidence and a sanctified imagination. The story could have been written another way; in fact, there were many ways to tell the story and most of them could be seen to fit the facts as they were known.
This was endlessly fascinating to me. It threw a relativism into the works that furnished my imagination with a constant stream of long shots and close-ups seen from different angles. Historical figures, outsized characters like Lord Nelson, Napoleon, and Winston Churchill, became, through my grandfather’s stories, people whose flaws were as tangible as their virtues. Neither was to be ignored nor were the flaws to define the person, as tempting as that was. History, in the way my grandfather taught it, was complex and multi-layered, a spider’s web of nobility, contrivances, deceit and bravery. It was not, as Henry Ford was famously quoted as declaring, ‘one damn thing after another,’ but a vast and ongoing story—a tale told with a point, freely offered up for scrutiny.
The events of the 60s, exploding over my generation, came so fast and furiously that Ford’s complaint seemed justified. It was one damn thing after another. Apparently random events took on a sinister afterglow, conspiracy theories bred like fruit flies, and the Book of Revelation bookmarked the nightly news. And if journalism was the rough draft of history, then propaganda from all points on the political spectrum was the marketer’s flack, guaranteed to fill the worst with a passionate intensity.
My cognitive dissonance over America’s Manifest Destiny gone rancid in Vietnam was further jolted by the realization that Martin Luther King, Jr. was breaking the Law. He didn’t just break it though, he first hauled it up from the depths like some blinkered Morlock, where it could be seen for the poisonous creature it was. The social effect of his nonviolent resistance to institutional racism was the permanent dwarfism of law. From that point on, certainly for my budding political awareness, the law no longer had the implicit seal of approval from on high. I saw it as a human construct, flawed and dangerous when it served only the interests of the powerful. For me this was a new experience: I found myself in a dark wood without the familiar landmarks and the path I’d traveled daily suddenly looked alien and forbidding. Thoreau had been there too, literally if not metaphorically. The traveller in the forest looks around and “Though he knows that he has travelled it a thousand times, he cannot recognize a feature in it,” says Thoreau. “. . . .[I]t is as strange to him as if it were a road in Siberia.”
Perhaps that was our feeling on 9/11 when, on a perfect day in September, our predictable world turned dark and terrifying. How could this happen here? Ten years on from that day I wonder what we have learned. Are we still the adolescent nation, armed, fractious, and trigger-happy? Are we still oblivious to the effect our bumbling self-centeredness has on the world around us? “Not till we have lost the world,” said Thoreau, “do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.”
Someone once remarked that “the world is passing strange and wondrous.” That it certainly is. There is mystery and wonder all around us—in the violent dislocations as well as in the harmonies we find. Our common histories quickly become uncommon when we make allowance for a shift in view.
“In rethinking our history,” says Howard Zinn, historian and author of The People’s History of America,” we are not just looking at the past, but at the present, and trying to look at it from the point of view of those who have been left out of the benefits of so-called civilization. It is a simple but profoundly important thing we are trying to accomplish, to look at the world from other points of view.”
That can be the legacy of 9/11.