Five things I learned from History

Threaten to Undo UsThis is a guest post by Rose Seiler Scott, author of “Threaten to Undo Us“.

In addition to writing her novel and blogging, Rose teaches piano. She is currently working on a BA in Leadership and has enjoyed enhancing her communication skills.

Rose felt compelled to write her debut novel after many years of hearing family anecdotes. Unpeeling the layers of the fascinating story resulted in “Threaten to Undo Us,” which won the 2016 Word Guild Award in the Historical fiction category. During the process of research on the Second World War and its aftermath in Eastern Europe, she has come to realize that not only is truth stranger than fiction, but that truth can be told through fiction.

Two of Scott’s short stories appear in “Hot Apple Cider with Cinnamon,” an inspirational compilation of Canadian Christian authors.

Rose lives with her family on the beautiful West Coast of British Columbia, Canada and looks forward to reading stories with her grandson.

For more info please visit Rose’s website: www.roseseilerscott.com

Rose Seiler Scott

Author

Does the thought of reading history make you want to yawn?  It shouldn’t, because the secrets of human nature are revealed to those who are willing to examine the past and learn from it. As George Santayana famously said, in The Life of Reason, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Five things I learned from reading and researching history are:

The capacity for good and evil is in each of us.

In the Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn said, “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

History is littered with examples of rulers like Nero, Ivan the Terrible, Hitler, Pol Pot, and Stalin, who stopped at nothing in their quest for power. Most of us imagine we could never be that depraved and cruel. But it is not so. Even if we could track down and assassinate every despotic ruler it wouldn’t actually help, because the capacity for evil resides in us, right alongside the ability to do good.

True morality comes from following our conscience.

Even today many people equate the rule of law with morality, but it is not the same thing.

When we borrow the supposed “morality” of the society we live in, instead of thinking critically for ourselves and looking to a higher moral code, we are doomed. If a leader can change our thinking about right and wrong, he has won most of the battle against his opposition.

It’s not even that complicated. The Nazis sacrificed freedom of speech and expression for the sake of their ideology, burning books and controlling any media that expressed opinions than the mainstream one. To repeat their message, they used slogans, posters and propaganda, silencing and ostracizing anyone who dared to oppose them.

Fortunately this technique didn’t work for everyone. Corrie Ten Boom’s book, The Hiding Place chronicles the story of their family, who hid Jews inside their walls during the Nazi occupation of Holland. Why? Because the Ten Booms had a very highly developed sense of right and wrong and were unwilling to bend to external forces, even under pressure.

Their faith and moral compasses told them to do other than what was popular and legal at the time.

Compassion for the “have nots” in society, is also vitally important if we want to avoid war and revolution.

Large disparities between rich and poor bring trouble.

As Charles Dickens stated in the opening to A Tale of Two Cities, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Extreme wealth and extreme poverty existing side by side leads to desperate acts by those on the fringes of survival.

Jean Valjean, the protagonist in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, is such a man, who by his poverty is driven to steal bread. He is convicted and imprisoned, destined to a life of destitution until one act of grace turns his life around. It is an uphill battle for Valjean but he spends his life helping others who would not have the opportunity to better themselves.

Unfortunately for many people in dire circumstances, it is not easy to think beyond bread, when you are hungry and this is one of the factors leading to the June Rebellion depicted in the book.

But the price for rebellion can be high and not everyone is willing to pay it.

In the interest of self-preservation, people will walk the path of least resistance.

Nazism and communism have a lot more in common than you might think, especially in the methods used to persuade people. To stand against the tide of popularity of a charismatic leader requires more fortitude than most people have.

Imagine your children will be bullied at school and you will lose your job, if you don’t join the Nazi party or the Communists. When your standing in the community is at stake, the path of least resistance becomes your own self-interest and a desire to protect those closest to you.  Maybe you wouldn’t actually commit a murder yourself, but what if you turned a blind eye to save your own skin?

It becomes more difficult to judge people in the past for their actions or lack of action, when we think about walking in their shoes.

We may be looking in the mirror at ourselves.

There is no them, there is only us.

“All Animals Are Equal. But Some Animals Are More Equal Than Others,” said George Orwell in Animal Farm.

Let’s face the facts here. We can easily become allied and loyal to people who look, live and act like us. Thinking of other groups of people as “them,” because they are different, has been used as permission for the most heinous acts against humanity.

The idea that some people are less equal humans or even less than human, was used to justify slavery and segregation in the U.S., apartheid in South Africa, residential schools in Canada, and the Holocaust in Europe.

When viewed as history, we know those “other” people were absolutely human beings and we never had a right to mistreat them.

The revelations of history and human nature are there for anyone to see: the capacity for good and evil, the tendency lose our moral compass and act in self-interest, the dichotomy of rich and poor, and the self-deception of an “us versus them” mentality.

This is the humanity we all share. We have the opportunity to make our future better if we are willing to learn from history.

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