The habits of history

I wrote last week about my feelings about the past, particularly with reference to my personal history. In this piece I want to show the flipside of that situation in a way that isn’t contradictory or hypocritical. It might be a delicate balancing act, or it might be that I’m overthinking it, but I’m consciously aware of the way I frame this in relation to that other piece. Whereas I feel challenged by dealing with things from my personal history, I feel comforted and reassured by the idea of collective history.

Essentially what brought me to the study of history was that I wanted to learn from the stories of the human race. I wanted to know the errors we had committed in the past in order to not repeat them in the future. Here’s a spoiler for those who haven’t studied history - we committed a lot of errors. We try to learn, we make more mistakes and the cycle begins again. Somehow, what be becomes most revealing is the cycle itself. Many things in our lives are constantly changing around us, but some things stay the same. Those things are a source of comfort to us, I think. These are the habits of human history.

I love going to watch live sport, particularly AFL and soccer. When I get on the train to go to a game, I think about the millions of people who have done the same thing over decades, perhaps as long as a century, to go and watch their team. I think of the people who paid with their meagre wages, stood in the rain and yelled until their voices were hoarse. I think of players and fans that have continually returned to a place like the Melbourne Cricket Ground. These experiences cut across decades and generations; whether you experienced them at fifteen years old or ninety-five, it doesn’t matter. Millions of people have come and continue to come to this exact spot to be a part of something bigge than the individual. People talk about sport being a religion here in Melbourne, I think it’s deeper. It’s spiritual.

It can be less tangible than that, even. Any time someone plays their first chord on a piano, walks into their first university lecture, signs the lease papers on their first apartment or proposes to their partner, all the feelings that they are going through are old. The fear, the uncertainty, the existential questions you have to face in these situations - these are all things humans have been through an infinite amount of times. When you hear that nagging sense of doubt in the back of your head in times like these, seek comfort in the notion that many others went through the same thing. When you are done, you’ll not only be a more complete person but you will have a little bit more insight to offer those who are standing on the other side of the river.

History is not just about what leaders do, it’s also about what people go through every day and the way they cope with those things. We call these things ‘rites of passage’ or ‘traditions’, but I wonder if we’ve thought enough about what makes us rever a particular action in this way. Sometimes comfort is a symptom of stagnancy and laziness, and sometimes it’s just a sign that we truly care about something.

Almost none of our experiences are specific to us in any real sense. To some, this revelation can be disappointing. Often it can seems we are treading a well worn, predefined path rather than breaking new ground for ourselves. But being a member of society means sharing these experiences with one another, and I think that’s pretty meaningful.