Learning from the Past
by Heidi Chiavaroli
I saw his hand shoot up into the air, and I knew what the request would be before he even asked. But this boy in my middle school history class surprised me. He didn’t ask to go to the bathroom. Instead, he had a question that almost pertained to our classroom conversation on the Civil War. “Why do we need to learn this stuff anyway?”
My teacher barely flinched. Instead, she turned from the nineteenth-century map of the United States posted at the front of the room and answered patiently. “It’s important to know about the past so we can learn from it, so we don’t make the same mistakes those who have gone before us made.”
That seemed to satisfy the boy enough, and inwardly I applauded my teacher’s answer (yes, I was that kind of student). If her response wasn’t a good reason to learn about history, I didn’t know what was!
Now, more than 20 years later and with two middle schoolers of my own, I’ve been asked this question more than once. And while I usually elaborate a bit more than my middle school teacher did, I’ve given them basically the same pat answer. The only problem is after I drop them off at school and come home to watch the world news headlines, I wonder about the truth of it.
Have we really learned from the past? It seems that we’ve studied enough historical wars, and yet we are involved in never-ending conflict. We think we have won a certain cultural battle, and then we hear that it hasn’t been put to rest after all.
So what does this mean for us? Can I give my children a pat answer that doesn’t seem to prove itself? Or are the people causing our current struggles the ones who simply didn’t learn from their history classes?
As I look deeper into this issue, and into my own heart, I see the basic struggle of humanity since ancient times. It’s a struggle for control, a struggle for entitlement, a struggle for power, a struggle for what we deem best for ourselves and others. When it comes right down to it, it’s a struggle against sin—one God knew we would never win ourselves no matter how many times we replayed the mistakes of our ancestors.
These are not issues that will easily disappear, and unless history becomes personal to us and Jesus shakes up our lives, I think I could go so far as to say they won’t even get better. Yet a part of me simply can’t believe that we’re just too stubborn to learn from the past, that God wouldn’t grow us in our quest to become more like Him—and that He can’t use both our own experiences and historical events to do so.
As I continued to ponder this question, I thought of my own journey. How had I learned to grow in compassion? How had I learned to grow in patience and discipline? The answer is, quite simply, that in any measure I’ve grown it’s been through my own personal experiences. My experience of either failure or victory, or my experience of another’s failure or victory.
You see, in order for good to come from the sins of our forefathers, it must first, I believe, become personal. That’s what Jesus did on the cross for us. He made it personal.
I remember when I first heard of the Boston Marathon bombings on that beautiful April day in 2013, almost five years ago now. I was out in the middle of the woods on a hike with my mom, my sister and my boys, enjoying the Massachusetts holiday dubbed Patriots’ Day, which commemorates the start of the American Revolution and the Battles at Lexington and Concord. My sister’s husband called to let us know about the bombings. An hour south of Boston, I remember feeling afraid, but not completely understanding the depth of this trauma until I came home to see the news and then, later that night, to witness the accounts of individuals who had been in the bombings—who had experienced them firsthand.
Seeing their struggles—in a small way, experiencing them—made them personal. That’s when my heart was truly struck, when the pain of those stories made what had occurred real for me. And in reading the many accounts of those whose lives were changed forever that day, I not only came to admire their tenacity and desire to cling to good in the face of evil; I learned and grew from their stories.
When we learn of historical events strictly from textbooks, it’s harder for us to cross this divide. I’m so glad to see the many ways of teaching history expanding. Being able to learn from the past and from history is one of the reasons I write what I write. History is still alive and breathing and powerful. The power of story to uncover not only history, but greater truths, is an avenue I am privileged to work within. To make personal.
When we read a story, our brains respond to a character’s heartache, happiness and frustration as if they were our own. We can learn from make-believe characters, whether their stories take place in contemporary or historical settings.
It is my great hope that when readers pick up my book, they not only accompany my historical heroine through her trials in colonial Boston and my contemporary heroine as she struggles through her fear surrounding the marathon bombings, but also take a piece of these characters into their own lives. That readers will not only grow with my characters as they struggle with fear but also conquer their own fears along with my characters.
Is that too grand a vision? I don’t think so. Because God can work in anything—whether it be stories, people, history or our own personal pasts—when we choose to hand our battles over to Him.
Heidi Chiavaroli is a writer, runner and grace-clinger who could spend hours exploring Boston’s Freedom Trail. She writes women’s fiction and won the 2014 ACFW Genesis contest in the historical category. Her debut novel, Freedom’s Ring, released from Tyndale House Publishers in August 2017. Heidi makes her home in Massachusetts with her husband, two sons and Howie, her standard poodle. Visit her online at HeidiChiavaroli.com.
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