One of the few advantages of growing old is a broader perspective. Looking back, one can view life from a prominent outcrop that reveals the treacherous mountains, dark forests, broad meadows, and pleasant valleys marking the journey. Some are obstacles to overcome and others restful interludes as the road unwinds.
The study of history provides enlightenment and perspective well beyond normal daily experiences. It is the study of humanity within the context of the forces that influenced those living at a time and within a culture often far different from what we experienced. It identifies the commonality, diversity, success, and failures of mankind, not in the abstract but within the harsh realities of each generation’s time on earth.
Religious, cultural, economic, political, and social pressures shape each generation and over time evolve, sometimes peacefully but more often violently as the tectonic plates that undergird societies grind, one against the other. Conflict remains one of the more pervasive forces in human history.
Christianity was an aberration. It promoted peace, compassion, forgiveness, understanding, humility, and love as an alternative to conflict. Yet under its banner, wars were fought and multitudes killed, subjugated, or enslaved. Mankind’s capacity to reconcile opposites such as freedom and equality with discrimination and servitude is obvious. Yesterday’s heroes like Washington, Jefferson and others are today castigated as hypocrites.
How could they preach the nobility of human freedom and equality while owning slaves? As flawed human beings in the context of their time, they refused to see the obscene injustice of viewing slaves as property. It is understandable that descendants of those slaves find no mitigation in what was then the prevailing attitude in the South, which for centuries tolerated its “peculiar institution,” the vestiges of which regrettably remain to this day.
History is filled with examples of human folly. Even our noble ventures have often proved to be mistakes. I have now lived during the terms of 13 presidents and almost too many wars to count, only two of which I view as justifiable and necessary, World War II and Korea. The first because we were attacked by Japan and then Hitler then declared war on us. In Korea, we were able to prevent the communist North from overrunning the South. Considering what has happened since, I believe our intervention was justified. Vietnam and Iraq are two wars that could, and should, have been avoided.
History is the backdrop, the stage upon which life unfolds. We tend to focus only on the actors and too often overlook the set. It is important to view the drama as the interaction between actors within the framework of the stage upon which they perform. True understanding requires insight into the complex, underlying structure of the times in which people lived their lives.
To paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King: The arc of history bends ever so slowly toward justice. The founding fathers, despite their now obvious imperfections, did help to bend that arc as did Harry Truman by integrating the services in 1948 and as did Lyndon Johnson, a southerner, by engineering the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1965, thereby illuminating the path ever so dimly for Dr. King and the recently deceased John Lewis, among others ,to carry on the struggle to expose injustice and achieve the elusive declaration: “All men are created equal.”
We cannot allow the “perfect to be the enemy of the good.” History teaches us “perfect” is unattainable. Nonetheless, we must continue to strive for what’s “better.”
Follow history’s bending arc
As it points to truth and justice
In a world of equivocation
It may never be fully achieved
The path is strewn with obstacles
That must be overcome.
James W. Dolan is a retired Dorchester District Court judge who now practices law.