The following is part one of a short series exploring how we look at the past and the passage of time. Dave Vago will share some ideas about how different times can seem more recent than others, and will discuss why it might be useful to think carefully about how speedy the passage of time really is.
PART ONE: How much time is a long time?
Studying the past can be a tricky thing. We can quantify data, put events on a timeline, and use any number of tools to see how the world we live in today has unfolded, to see how different events impacted one another, to look for patterns, and to use the lessons therein to make decisions about the future. However, in everyday life, while we may look at past events in passing, we rarely consider them methodically. As a consequence, our perspective on what seems recent, what seems ancient, and what does and does not seem relevant might be more arbitrary than we think it is.
Compounding this are the ways we can look at the past, the ever-evolving means by which we have documented things over time. A black and white photo or a fine art painting can reinforce in our minds the otherness of the past, because they are more abstract than color photographs, and also because while they remain viable in the art world, they are, as a means of documentation, mostly obsolete. A live movie recording of an event can make it seem more lucid than still photographs, and compared to film footage from just 20 years ago, a digital recording can seem light-years more recent.
We often assign a segment of the past the informal title of ancient history as it moves beyond a certain chronological threshold. However, that threshold is neither precise nor consistent: it is different not only for different people of different ages, but also in different contexts, different frames of reference, and in different forms of storytelling and documentation. Some things can seem ancient even if they actually occurred more recently than events that don’t feel very long ago at all. In terms not only of measured time, but also of memory, how long ago were bellbottom pants fashionable? How long ago did slavery end? How recent was the 1918 flu epidemic?
We are going through events today that will take up similar amounts of space in the history books as those events do. Indeed, 2020 may well seem to many of us like a category unto itself with respect time and major events. We find ourselves in the midst of turmoil and uncertainty that is unprecedented for anyone born and raised in the United States from 1945 on, and in the moment, the passage of time seems extraordinary. As the current pandemic was just starting to make major waves from China, the biggest world news up to that point had been the Australian wildfires. For many of us, this now seems like ancient history. But, how recent was this past Christmas? When did you take down the lights? Has your roasting pan started collecting visible dust yet? Those fires were just starting to make major worldwide news waves when hams and turkeys were on the table.
“I am grateful to have had grandparents and other relatives, friends, and neighbors who could talk to me about their experiences with the history they lived through. I am grateful that I had access to places like a great used bookstore in downtown Three Rivers, where I could access more information about the past inexpensively, and fill in the details about the parts that the people I knew didn’t experience, couldn’t remember, or didn’t share.”
The good news is that we’ve been through political division and upheaval, pandemics, and major environmental catastrophes before, and on the grandest of scales, we moved on. However, we also know what those events have cost in monetary terms as well as those of life, injury, destruction, and their emotional toll, and when we don’t yet know what the current versions of those events will cost us, it can feel like we’re living in truly daunting times.
The better news is that all of these kinds of events have happened a lot in comparatively recent times—say the last 150 years—and have coincided with unprecedented and prolific ways of recording and documenting what happened and what the people who lived through them felt that they learned from them. Further, in generational terms, 150 years isn’t much. You almost certainly know someone today who knew someone in their childhood who was alive 150 years ago.
So, the information is out there. What events have the people in your life lived through? What did they witness firsthand? Do they talk about them? What did they think of those events? It’s always interesting to learn where they were when something major happened, and what about those events they felt impacted them most significantly at the time.
However, the most important question may be this: what did they learn from those events? If we do, indeed, study the past to avoid its mistakes, then the most useful by-products of history’s mistakes are their lessons. Someone you know has seen war and the destruction it brings firsthand. Someone you know, as well, has seen social and political change firsthand. Natural and human-caused disasters. Pandemics, which are usually a combination of the two.
Ideally, you know many people who experienced many of the same things, and all saw these events differently. Some lived through them directly, some were distant but still impacted, and some could watch from afar. Ideally, both you and they know the difference. They are all important, sometimes for the facts and information they recall, but sometimes also for what they reveal about perspectives, the lessons that events can teach us, and whether or not they, or we, have learned those lessons.
I am grateful to have had grandparents and other relatives, friends, and neighbors who could talk to me about their experiences with the history they lived through. I am grateful that I had access to places like a great used bookstore in downtown Three Rivers, where I could access more information about the past inexpensively, and fill in the details about the parts that the people I knew didn’t experience, couldn’t remember, or didn’t share. While there is still more about the past that I don’t know than what I do know, I am grateful for the gift of perspective.
Over the next few columns, I’ll share how this perspective on the past developed for me, and while your experience will undoubtedly be different, I hope that you too can find the same kind of perspective.
Dave Vago is a Philadelphia native with roots in Three Rivers. He is a planning consultant to history and community development organizations and is the former Executive Director of the Three Rivers DDA/Main Street program.