After 40 years teaching US History, I’ve seen all too many blank faces whenever I added this epilogue to the great Civil War battle whose sesquicentennial we honor this week: “The very memory of the Battle of Gettysburg may be on a par with the battle itself.”
My point was the whole point to history itself. It shouldn’t be that claptrap collection of names and dates most students dread; history should be a living re-remembering of where we came from and how we got here. As Winston Churchill famously said: “The further back you can look, the further ahead you see.”
What’s true about the epic struggle Lincoln forever memorialized in 1863 is in some way true of virtually every memory you and I carry with us from childhood. Remembrances of things past are very much like that sequence of strands which makes up that wobbly rope bridge we are navigating from Yesterday to Tomorrow. We — both as individuals and as nations — can best traverse that stretch of time below by building and using this bridge wisely.
Exactly why today’s ‘Carpe Diem’ mantra is so problematic. We move in an age of such self-attention and if-I-can-dream-it-I-can do-it conviction that there is less and less interest in what has gone before. To be sure, I am sounding the old lament of all older generations; and yet the bridge youth travels is just as dependent upon the sturdiness of its Yesterday side as its Tomorrow side.
Well lets see then, does all this suggest that every memory is equally consequential? The day I first learned to stand on skates….the day I first met that special someone….the day I learned how to survive that F or social humiliation of job loss? Or how about that marriage, divorce, move, lie, or funeral? Like those history textbooks, some memories make chapter headines while others merely footnotes. Memories are to be kept, but also prioritized.
Gettysburg…? To understand what America is, you need to understand why Gettysburg was so important. You…? To understand you, you need to understand how your puzzle box of memories has assembled itself into the face you wear today. And, thereby, to perhaps understand that new face you are already becoming.
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