The right way to read (and make) history
There is a danger in studying history, which has direct implications for your life.
The danger is to view past lives as being pre-determined, the past choices of historical characters as inevitable.
We take what happened for granted, ignoring the infinite possibilities of what could have happened had the characters chosen differently.
We view history as static facts and dates and fixed events, rather than a rich, dynamic, fluid, unfolding story that can take twists and turns at any moment.
Think of it this way: The first time you watch an action movie you’re on the edge of your seat, held in suspense, anxious to know what will happen next, wondering what the characters will choose in response to events and circumstances.
The twists at the end that you never saw coming surprise and delight you, make the story wondrous and satisfying.
The second time you watch that same movie, you’ve lost your sense of wonder. When you already know how the story ends, you take the characters’ choices for granted.
Of COURSE they chose that, you think (at least subconsciously). What other choice did they have?
Ah. There is the danger.
Study this picture depicting George Washington and his soldiers crossing the Delaware River on their way to surprise Hessian troops in Trenton, New Jersey on the morning of December 26th, 1776:
Now let your imagination wander. Instead of looking at a static picture, an event that has already happened, walk into the picture and turn it into a movie in your mind — a movie you have never seen before.
See the boats rocking on the waves. Hear them smash into the massive chunks of ice.
See the soldiers’ blue lips, hear their chattering teeth, feel the bitter cold slicing through their thin blankets.
Listen in on their private thoughts as they think of a warm hearth, a loving mother, a comfortable bed back home. Feel their gut-wrenching fear as they think of what’s in store for them when they reach the other side of the river.
Ponder: What choices do they have in this moment? What would you have done in their place? What is going to happen? How will the battle unfold? What consequences will it have for the Revolutionary War and for future generations?
Here’s the point: History is not inevitable.
George Washington did not have to order that attack.
Those soldiers did not have to follow him into battle — nor did they have to sign up to fight in the first place.
They did not have to march over ice and snow with no shoes, leaving bloody footprints for others to follow the next morning.
They did not have to fight the Hessian troops with nothing but their bayonets when they learned that their powder was too wet to fire.
They did not have to win — the result of the battle was not pre-determined. America as we know it did not have to materialize.
Your freedom, comfort, and prosperity have never been inevitable, guaranteed, pre-determined.
People fought and bled and suffered and died for all the blessings we take for granted today. Despite having an infinite number of choices available to them in the moment, they CHOSE their path that paved the way for us.
Here’s why this matters for you: You are not a passive participant in the making of your own history. The path you’ve taken, the choices you’ve made have never been inevitable.
All along the way, you could have chosen differently. You are the author writing your own story, a character choosing your own way. And right now, today, you can choose the next twist and turn of your story.
Today you could choose to quit your job. You are not stuck there like a historical character frozen in a picture.
Today you could choose to forgive your spouse for last night’s fight and write him or her a love letter.
Today you could choose to quit work early and take your children on an adventure.
Today you could choose to get help with a secret addiction.
Today you could choose to leap off the fence, your fears be damned, and commit to that network marketing business you’ve been considering.
Today you could choose to start a homeless shelter.
Today you could choose to move to Spain.
Today you could choose to sign up for dancing or guitar or painting lessons.
Never take historical choices for granted just because you know how the story ends. And never take your own power to choose for granted, living life on default mode, frozen in a static picture made of social scripts.
History was never inevitable. And neither are your choices.