There is a lot of consternation in our lives today. You name it: religion, politics, economies local and global, social norms, culture, etc. In any one of these categories, it would be very difficult to find agreement. The only overriding exception might be that we would all agree that discourse about these matters has devolved into shouting and not listening. In other words, we seem not to be able to discuss anything anymore. This, I know, is a contemporary perspective. Historians would tell us that there has never been a pax disputatio, a time when peaceful social discourse was the rule. Even Jesus, centuries ago, was put to death not because of what he did, but because of what he said or at least what people presumed he was saying, i.e., I am the Son of God.
The course of human history seems more cyclical than linear. We humans don’t stray very far from our comfort zone of ranting and raving. Mark Twain apparently said this about what history appears to be and how it really is: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” The rhyme goes like this: I disagree with what you think and furthermore what you think is stupid and furthermore I think you are stupid.
A classmate in seminary had a brilliant penchant for history. He said that he sees history as a kind of film. In his mind he could roll several films at the same time and tell you what was happening in Rome in 312 C.E. and, at the same time, what was happening in China. History for this fellow was a constant flow and the contemporary moment could be matched with something similar in his film collection. So, nothing seemed to surprise him. He laughed off current events as mere echoes of the past. His philosophy of history was This too shall pass. This is a cynical philosophy of life because it essentially believes that there is nothing new under the sun.
Were my friend alive today, he would likely be excited about all the vitriolic discourse because for him, the pages of history were simply being replayed with different characters. I think this is an interesting perspective and maybe even helpful to cope with chaos, but it kind of puts the skids to hope. Hope, by nature, is futuristic and if history just revisits itself then hope will not have much a voice for change, growth, elevation, advancement, and maturation. This, I suppose, is what is meant by “If we do not learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it.” There’s the death knell for hope.
I am not, however, so quick to dismiss hope because it is a virtue that transcends history while it is only useful (like all virtues) in this world, in history. Paul Péguy, an early 20th century French writer wrote this: Hope leads everything. For faith sees only what is. But hope sees what will be. Charity loves only what is. But hope loves what will be— In time and for all eternity (The Portal of the Mystery of Hope, 1911). I think what Péguy is saying is that Faith and Love fade away as earthly virtues; they are no longer need in heaven. They are lost in the annals of history. But hope springs forth eternal. We can never be God, but only like him. Hence, hope leads the way to constantly becoming.
I saw a t-shirt ‘inscription’ one day that amused me. It read, “If you want to change history, write it down.” Far from being cynical, in my opinion this phrase lightens the burden of history and allows us to make our own history where we can have a say in what happens, what will happen and what has happened, all voices of history. We can turn off tv programs that are only on air to make money by way of preying on our lack of hope, not to enlighten our minds. These programs only say what we want to hear, not what we should hear. We can think before we react or say anything that is later an embarrassment to us. We can withhold opinions and social commentaries because they have no bearing on an end result. We can practice forbearance and overlook the faults of others because they are likely the beam in our own eye (Luke 6:42 and Matthew 7:5). We can dismiss foolishness and focus on what really matters.
History has a way of controlling us. It is suggested that history can be a tool, but it should never be a tyrant. Just because something happened, does not mean it has to happen again, aside of course, from the sway of nature and the gift of virtue.