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A few months ago I came across a magazine full of colorized old photographs from the collection of Brazilian artist Marina Amaral. For a concept so simple, the effect was jarring. Seeing, in full color, Abraham Lincoln posing awkwardly in front of a tent, Ruby Bridges being escorted to school by a pair of suited U.S. Marshals, and tram traffic on Westminster Bridge in 1919 closed an emotional distance between me and these histories that I hadn’t realized existed. It was almost disorienting, as if the wall between two different compartments of my brain that had long been kept separated was suddenly removed.
Thinking about these photographs made me reflect on my relationship with the past. I interact with it everyday, whether it’s by reading old books about old characters, or hearing about my older relatives, or studying the ancient empires of the world. But in my mind these lives led and cherished and ended were merely like old black and white photographs. They were faded and stripped of the color that filled their lives, reduced to the simplest dimensions and expressed in shallow generalizations.
I think this phenomenon is something we all experience. We’ve forged this psychological asymmetry between us and those who lived before us, an asymmetry that implicitly assumes inherent psychological differences between us. We don’t put ourselves in their minds and shoes and see their experiences and their personal battles as contextualized versions of ours. We’re hung up on the trivial details, the obsolete language we imagine them using, the funny clothes and dated beliefs, and the grayscale world we picture them running about in.
Perhaps this phenomenon is just an extension of our general difficulty of empathizing with people we’ve never met. Yet it doesn’t feel like the whole story. Somehow it’s easier to think of John Johnson from Colorado’s anxieties and fears and hopes, and to connect those experiences with our own, than it is to do so with Ernest Hemingway.
As difficult as it may be to address this lack of connection, we stand to gain a lot from doing so. We represent just one sliver of the wealth of human experience, of the countless little minds speeding along, worrying and wondering and wishing just like us, all spilling from the same basic genetic spring. For one, connecting represents an opportunity to learn as a society. The next time we want to dismiss the value of learning from our past, we should hesitate, and ask ourselves if we’re giving enough credit to the constancy of the human thread between now and then. Culture changes — but its basic building block, the human mind, less so.
At a personal level, reconnecting with history is also an opportunity for learning. Pick up an old diary, or revisit an old book, and see if you can’t discover parallels between you and the person writing them, and if you can’t take some things away from the lessons your new companion synthesized over the course of their long existence. Remember that no matter how foreign their experiences outwardly appear to you, inwardly they experienced life much the way you do.
But more importantly, perhaps, the past can be a source of solidarity and comfort for us. It’s oddly comforting when you’re fretting over some test or date or game to think back, a thousand years, to some unnamed 20 year old, sitting in whatever circumstances with whatever specific worries, living through the same feelings, the same buzz in their body, the same beating heart, the same focusing thoughts. It’s oddly exciting when you’re happy about something, a new job or friend or date gone well, to think back three thousand years to another unnamed 20 year old, sitting in whatever circumstances with whatever specific good news, feeling the same rush of emotions, the same giddiness, the same urge to smile or jump or holler.
We live in a vast web of human history. Our minds tread paths that millions of others before us have walked before. Appreciating this provides us an opportunity to learn from history in a new way, an opportunity to be flooded with the full color of past human existence that our minds have hidden in black and white for so long.
William A. McConnell ’21 is a Mathematics concentrator in Adams House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.
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