Friday, January 30, 2015

Your Personal Past: Regaining a Sense of Belonging by Understanding Your Personal History

 The only thing new in the world is the history you do not know.
 Harry S. Truman
Every generation tends to discount the past -- until they "get knocked in the head by experience" and then they look to history for examples and lessons.

Harry Truman, who had to make numerous unprecedented decisions at the end of World War II, looked to history for guidance.

President Truman who faced some of the most difficult decisions.  
Truman said:"The next generation never learns anything from the previous one until it’s brought home with a hammer."
"I’ve wondered why the next generation can’t profit from the generation before but they never do until they get knocked in the head by experience." 

Handed-down wisdom was not accepted until a crisis proved its wisdom. This meant that each generation, in its hubris, had to learn this painful lesson because it did not think that the past had anything useful to teach it.

However, history has a number of stories to tell -- and to those who will listen the stories are priceless.

Military strategists today still study the tactics of Alexander the Great who fought more than 2300 years ago and who always faced a much larger army. This is a Roman picture of Alexander's Battle at Issus in Persia in 334 BCE.  (

If you are interested in helping the environment, there are a number of examples of past ecological collapses. Such as:
Study traces ecological collapse over 6,000 years of Egyptian history

A Texas dust storm in 1935 approaching a town  (

And the tragedy of the Dust Bowl in the US in the 1930s

Today, however, it seems that even recent history -- anything more than 10 or 20 years ago -- is often considered 'old school', 'out of date' and not really relevant.

Now, to be fair, there has been a definite break in the last 20 years -- computers and computer technology such as the Internet are distinctly different from typewriters and telegrams. And each generation must carve out a new path that is different from their parents. In addition cell phones have changed the way people communicate and relate to each other -- which is quite different from the recent past when all phones were connected to landlines and were anchored to a fixed location.

However, today there is often a kind of joyous ignorance as a friend of mine has pointed out, an attitude of "I don't know and I don't want to know."

Yet to be mired in the present is to never gain an overview of life -- the limitations of the brief present will not give you enough of a perspective. Understanding the past is like standing on a high hill where you can view a broad sweep of what life has to offer.


But even more importantly you would not exist without the past. The threads of life from your great-great-great-etc-grandparents have lead directly to you being alive today. And without those unbroken threads you would not exist.

And the past can reappear in surprising ways. Many children find that they take after their grandparents, more than their parents, for example. And psychologists have found that children who know their family history are better able to cope with crises in their lives -- because they can look to experiences in their family when relatives had to overcome similar problems.

Yet I hear over and over that the past does not matter, it is dead, and what's done is done.

So for a minute come along with me and participate in the following 'mind experiment'.

If you have always assumed that your parents were your birth parents, imagine how you would feel if later in life you discovered something different. For example, the singer Bobby Darin found out at the age of 32 that his family was entirely different from what he had thought.
...he discovered that he had been brought up by his grandparents, not his parents, and that the girl he had thought to be his sister was actually his mother. These events deeply affected Darin and sent him into a long period of seclusion.

Bobby Darin (

This is a particularly good example, because in a sense nothing had changed -- his family was still alive and well -- but events in the past had suddenly come alive and completely changed his relationships. So the past was not dead.

When you cut yourself off from the past, you have in a sense cut yourself off from who you are. You have made yourself into an orphan, who has landed on an island but who does not know how they got there and where they came from.


To understand the history that is important to you, you need to do the following:

  • Ask parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts about their past. You might do this at Christmas or on a birthday. But be in charge; don't let them ramble or focus on conflicts. If this starts to happen, ask another question.
  • Learn about the history of your town, your county, your state, your region -- this is easy now with the Internet. Wikipedia, for example, has a separate page for just about any town of any size. In any case just Google the name of your town and you may be surprised at what comes up. Read about the industries, famous people, geography, natural disasters, etc.
  • Learn about the history of your country: You should know the presidents (or prime ministers) during the last 50-100 years and the major events that occurred while they were in charge.
  • Learn about the world: When a major conflict or issue erupts learn the history of the conflict -- and read opinions from both sides about what led to that conflict.
  • Learn about your culture: Customs and holidays are often steeped in tradition -- learn about those traditions and how they were viewed at different times in the past.

Rock group picture from

Learn about people you admire: If you like a certain music group, for example, read about their influences and the history of the type of music that they play.


To test my own advice, I went online to learn more about my first home town of Sharon, Connecticut, the place where I was born but left more than 50 years ago. Being a writer and photographer today, I have always been interested in the arts and literature but was not aware that Sharon, in particular, was the home of so many actors and writers. For example, way back in 1781, Noah Webster author of the famous Webster's Dictionary taught in Sharon. When I did some online research I also found that a good friend of my mother's, Judson Phillips, was an important mystery writer and he also founded the summer theater, the Sharon Playhouse. This theater has made the town a magnet for actors, so today people such as Kevin Bacon have a home here.,_Connecticut

Sharon Library
This unusual looking library was built in 1893. It was funded privately by Maria Bissell Hotchkiss. I have to believe that this remarkable library which has been part of Sharon for over 100 years has attracted writers to the town and also helped create an appreciative audience. It is still open everyday along with an annual book signing that features a number of famous authors.

Most things you learn about your personal past will add to your enjoyment and also to a feeling of being connected. Even when you discover stories of extreme pain and conflict, you may feel a sense of pride that those who came before you suffered and survived.

Knowing about your past will help you feel more comfortable in your own skin and also give you a sense of belonging and a sense that you are part of a long family tree.

Town of Sharon, Connecticut (Google Earth)