Tuesday, March 2, 2010
Learning From the Past
Is it possible to learn from the mistakes of the past? The late historian Barbara Tuchman struggled with this question in her book, The March of Folly. In this sweeping journey through history she looked at three wars: Trojan, American Revolution and Vietnam.
What she discovered was that the same mistakes were repeated by those in power. Her conclusion: "We can only muddle on as we have done in those same three or four thousand years, through patches of brilliance and decline, great endeavor and shadow." To Tuchman, human history is a tragic "march of folly." Freud called this urge to repeat mistakes, "the repetition compulsion."
I have a somewhat more hopeful estimate of the human capacity to learn from the past. I believe we are not doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over. However, if we are to break free from repeating past mistakes, we must become aware of them. Someone has said that those who aren't aware of the past are doomed to repeat it.
To honestly look at our mistakes and delve deeply into how and why we made them is a first step. The next step is to take positive action to deal with the issues at the root of our mistakes. This could take the form of a program of self-discipline, a 12 step group, or therapy. Spirituality can certainly help us change our life in positive ways. The values at the heart of spirituality-- honesty, compassion, self-discipline and gratitude-- can help us overcome the past.
Humans have been created with freedom. One of our great freedoms is to choose to break free of the power of the past. Freedom is like a muscle-- it must be exercised to become strong.