There are few things that annoy me more than the phrase “because that is how we have always done it.” If that mantra had any power, then women would still not be able to vote and witches would still be hung in this country. Unfortunately, I still hear this phrase being used too often as the reason why we should disregard looking for better approaches to our problems. Can our past really hold that much power? Should history be used as an excuse to continue the status quo irrespective of potentially better solutions? How
should we utilize history? As the Heartland Spiritual Alliance enters its second 25 years, how strongly should it hold on to its past to determine what it should do in the future?
“Problems cannot all be solved, for, as they are solved, new aspects are continually revealed: the historian opens the way, he does not close it.” ~ Sir Maurice Powicke
Careful self reflection on our past can be very valuable but we must keep in mind the limitations of history. First, history is an unreliable predictor of future outcome because rarely are all the same circumstances the same. We must realize that we cannot expect our experience to be the same in the future as it was in the past. Each event in our life is unique and must be appreciated on its own. An entire universe of influences came together at the very moment of that past experience and we can hardly expect it to happen again. Second, our memory of our past is fraught with biasness. We tend to recall only what we want to recall from our past. For example, extreme pain and suffering may cause
us to bury a memory as a coping mechanism. Others might choose to remember and dwell on that same memory and forget any good experiences. And lastly, we should remember that any event from our past will have only been observed from our own viewpoint and therefore will be incomplete. Each event that occurs in our life can be observed from an infinite number of viewpoints and each view will be different.
“History is merely a list of surprises. It can only prepare us to be surprised yet again.” ~Kurt Vonnegut
Even with these limitations, a reflection on our history can provide us valuable experience. First, it can give us confidence. We recall that we have met the challenges in the past and have proven we can persevere. History often shows examples of where we have proven that we are better and stronger than we previously realized. Second, we gain knowledge of what may occur as a consequence of our actions. Though history does not determine what we should do and what will occur, it does provide us possible cause-and-effect outcomes.
History is NOT doomed to repeat itself if we do not study it, but a careful study of our history can point out possible outcomes.
“History is no more than memories refreshed.” ~ Peter C. Newman
Another way I like to view history is in respect to Karma. Karma, to me, is the accumulation of your experiences (and possibly the experiences of your family and your previous lives). These experiences cannot be defined as “bad” or “good.” “Bad” experiences may the open doors to “good” experiences. This Karma, or history, is therefore just experiences that can provide you wisdom which can be applied to help you live a better future.
“History is the present. That’s why every generation writes it anew.” ~E.L. Doctorow
The Wheel of the Year reminds Pagans that the progression of birth, growth, decline and death that is observed in nature is echoed in human lives. Though this Wheel seems to repeat, each year is unique and must be treated as such. During ritual we are often asked to reflect on our previous year, but with the purpose of establishing our intent for the future. We should learn from the past and then let it go. We should establish goals and then focus on the steps that will move us closer to it. We should keep our energy and attention on today and not fall into the trap of dwelling on yesterday.
“In every conceivable manner, the family is link to our past, bridge to our future.” ~ Alex Haley
The next upcoming Sabbat, Samhain, also allows us to look at the value of history slightly differently. One of the themes of this Sabbat is to honor the lives and experiences of those that have died. These ancestors provide us a great legacy of history that can be drawn upon to improve our own lives if we so choose to use it. I think one of the best ways to honor your ancestors is by taking advantage of the lessons that were learned by them. But once again, we must live our own lives and not theirs.
“History is always written wrong, and so always needs to be rewritten.” ~ George Santayana
The Heartland Pagan Festival is celebrating a history of 25 years this year. This is an amazing feat especially considering that it is managed exclusively by volunteers. My hope is that the Heartland Spiritual Alliance can draw upon this wonderful history but not be tied to it. I hope that HSA can continue to grow and not let that past dictate the future. We should learn from those that have run the organization and the festival previously, but not be afraid to take chances and question and improve upon those lessons.
“That which is past and gone is irrevocable. Wise men have enough to do with the present and things to come.” ~ Francis Bacon
The past is a powerful force. Change is always more difficult than just repeating what always has been done. Unfortunately, repetition can stifle growth. I challenge each member to strive to never rely on history to tell us what must be done, but to instead use its lessons to challenge us to better ourselves in the next 25 years. The glory days of the past are still ahead of us.