Learning from History

May. 28, 2020 by Adriana Thompson

Alison Chai[Written by Alison Chai]

Alison Chai is the programmatic accreditation and regulatory compliance manager for the College of Education at Concordia University Texas.

Uncertainty and change are hard, especially for people who like having all their ducks in straight rows, like me. We live now in a situation where no one has definitive answers to many important questions. There is no manual, rule book or list of instructions that came with COVID-19.

Thankfully, though, history has seen moments like this, and we have the opportunity to look back and learn. My “security blanket” is history and literature. What can I learn from the past, and how can I be a part of something that will continue to move our history forward in love?

Learning from History

When I was in ninth grade, my grandma took me on a trip to Washington, D.C. One of the places we toured was the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The museum is dedicated to both telling the story and remembering the individual people who lost their lives: huge rooms full of just one item, like shoes, and multi-story halls filled with pictures of the people who died. It was, and is, an emotional, overwhelming experience. I just couldn’t fathom how the German people and the world could have let it happen. Six million Jews and millions of other non-Jews were allowed, by people — regular people — to be killed.

The question on my mind and heart was and still is, how did they reach the point where the mass killing of people became acceptable, where next-door neighbors became the enemy and even children deserved to die? And my next question is always, what can I do, what can we do, to not go down that path?

I’m not sure if this is a question I will ever truly be able to answer, but I do know that the German people didn’t just wake up one morning thinking that the mass genocide of millions of people was a good choice. It was a slow, gradual shift in individual people, which in turn affected the ethics of their society.

These small shifts start in times of uncertainty and suffering:

  • They start when we’re all trying to figure out how our lives became so disrupted, so quickly.
  • They start with the uncertainty of not being able to make ends meet and fearing for the health and well-being of ourselves and our families.
  • They start when society starts to focus on fault, rather than finding solutions.
  • They start with small, barely recognized, dehumanizing moments where people are generalized, groups are referred to using nicknames and when it starts to become “us” versus “them.” We begin to forget that we are all created in the image of God and that the “them” is made up of individual people, like us.

In Luke 10: 25-37, all the laws of the Bible are summed up into (1) love God, and (2) love your neighbor. Through the parable of the Good Samaritan, it tells us who our neighbor is: an individual, not a group. Our neighbor is someone we may not have wanted to know or took the time to get to know. Our neighbor is one of “them.”

Now, you may be thinking to yourself that you already know this. You probably also hope that if you lived in Nazi Germany, you would have been part of the resistance and wouldn’t have turned in your neighbor. I know I do, but I don’t think it’s the most important question. Aside from what would you do if you were there, how do we ensure that we are continually evaluating and readjusting our thoughts, hearts, minds and words so that we notice our neighbor and love our neighbor — every neighbor?

Society is rarely changed by big dramatic gestures, but instead through millions of small, individual actions. When we think of social change, we usually think of a strong leader: the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King, Jr., the women’s suffrage and Susan B. Anthony, and so many events and people, but that is not where the change happened. They were just the voice. The change came from hundreds and thousands of people who got up every day and lived as examples of their beliefs and loved their neighbors, even in times of disruption and uncertainty.

These are uncertain times. It would be easy to turn our focus inward, on what is best for “us,” because self-preservation is a part of our human nature. That’s not to say we shouldn’t continue to care for ourselves, our families and friends, and our community, but we need to remember and care for our neighbor.

I think we can do this in one important way: be lifelong learners, not just of facts, but of people, cultures and history.

  • Look outward,
  • read every kind of book,
  • listen carefully to people, not to respond, but to learn, and
  • once it’s safe to do so, travel to experience other cultures.

Resources

My preferred method of learning is by reading, followed closely by museums. I’ve compiled a very condensed list of books and places that have and continue to influence my understanding of my neighbor and loving my neighbor. I would love to know what has influenced you.

  • The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
  • Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum
  • Lutherstadt Wittenberg
  • "All the Light We Cannot See" by Anthony Doerr
  • "We Were the Lucky Ones" by Georgia Hunter
  • "Farewell to Manzanar" by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston & James D. Houston
  • "Go Set a Watchman" by Harper Lee
  • "Carry Me Home" by Diane McWhorter
  • "Ender’s Game" by Orson Scott Card
  • "The Hate U Give" by Angie Thomas
  • "I Think You’re Wrong, but I’m Listening" by Sarah Stewart Holland & Beth A. Silvers
  • "Dr. Zhivago" by Boris Pasternak
  • "The Girl" by Meridel Le Sueur
  • "I am the Beggar of the World" by Eliza Griswold
  • "Load Poems Like Guns" by Farzana Marie
  • "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" by Dee Brown
  • "Tale of Two Cities" by Charles Dickens
  • "Stargirl" by Jerry Spinelli
  • The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling

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