September 08, 2004

The role of history

Bakalicious has a beautiful entry today about the writer's trip to Nikko. I have heard many wonderful things about Nikko, but despite having lived in Japan for almost twenty years, I have never been there. I'd like to go, but whenever the opportunity arises, something else with greater importance comes up as well. I have been to Nara many times, Kyoto half a dozen times, Nagoya more times than I can count, Osaka once or twice, and Hiroshima once. I also spent three months teaching in Nihonmatsu, which is a small town in Fukushima prefecture. Shinto remains one of the few aspects of Japanese culture that never ceases to amaze me in terms of diversity, individual expression, and uniqueness of character. I have seen and photographed hundreds, maybe even thousands of shrines ranging from a single stone in the middle of an open field to a huge edifice of such elaborateness an Egyptian Pharoah would probably be amazed. History is alive and well in Japan, but that is not necessarily a good thing.

A lifetime ago when I was young, enthusiastic, pious, and naive, I attended a revival meeting at a local Baptist church. The visiting evangelist had been to the Holy Land numerous times and claimed to be one of the few Christian missionaries allowed to preach openly in Jordan. At the time, of course, I didn't know that Jordan boasts one of the oldest, most well-established Christian populations in the entire world. One thing the evangelist said that day has stuck with me for almost thirty years, "I have been to the holy nation of Israel many times in my life and I have seen many changes. Security, peace, and stability are wonderful goals, but I miss the old days when the streets of Jerusalem were filled with wooden carts, bedouins and sheep, and it felt like the one place on Earth where time had stopped and the days of Christ our saviour still lived."

A place where time had stopped? Is that really what we Americans are searching for? Is reliving history so important to us that we are willing to sacrifice our modern world for the "comforts" of a Franklin Stove, homemade jelly, and fresh-baked bread? Do we really want to relight our stove every ten minutes, break our teeth on fruit seeds, and spend all day making toast? Does the preservation of history and tradition mean reliving the past on weekends and then slaving away during the week to make money for stockholders living in Florida? History is a wonderful thing. The more we study history the more we learn about who we are, where we come from, and how we got here, but that does not mean that sometime in the misty past people were happier, healthier, more spiritual, or more advanced in any other way, nor does it mean they were less advanced.

The multitude of notes, messages, grocery lists, and memorandums left to us by the Sumerians clearly show that in many, many ways, they were no different than we are. These people lived 7,000 years ago. They invented writing, built the very first cities, erected the first grand temples, developed a commercial economy, and created the foundations that the modern world is built upon. While the Egyptians were still drowning in the spring floods, the Sumerians were constructing irrigation works and organizing small cities with a temple in the center. While the Chinese were slaughtering each other in endless civil wars, the Sumerians were teaching their conquerers (the Akkadians) how to run, organize, and manage an empire. History is a wonderful teacher that we too often ignore. Instead of fantasizing about a glorious past, we need to learn the lessons of Waterloo, Hiroshima, and 9/11.

The real lesson history teaches us is neither the glory of heroism nor the greatness of humanity. Sadly, the real lesson history teaches is that the only time society moves forward is when we find a way to preserve our individualism while still working together for the common good. In every single instance, as soon as one person or group gains the power to dictate the dreams and ambitions of their society, that society implodes. There are no exceptions!

There is no golden past. However, if we pay attention to the lessons history teaches, we might have a golden future.