We tend to think of history as objective truth agreed upon for the most part by all of those who have really studied it. It is certainly taught like that. For example, we believe Benjamin Franklin lived and did certain things.
I am an amateur historian, or more properly a history buff. I do not have a history degree, so I am missing some of the necessary background to speak with authority about the academic field of history. I plan to take a course at some point in historiography, the study of how historians do history. Historiography is about the methodology of history.
History is not another name for the past, as many people imply. It is the name for stories about the past. – A.J. P. Taylor
Even without that formal historical background, I do agree with Taylor that history is really story. Think of your own life and recall some event that occurred a while back. When you get to my age there are events that occurred when I was a teenager that I think I can recall with great clarity.
For instance, the summer before I began seventh grade the school yearbook staff took a weekend retreat to the beach home of one of our fellow staffers. Everything was going great until we tried to get a sailboat that was on a trailer unstuck from the sand. The mast of the sailboat hit a 7,900 volt electric wire. Those of us who were holding on to the boat and/or trailer got to make a trip to the local hospital for various burns and injuries.
Do you see what I did there? I experienced this event. I know it happened. You do not know it happened. I had to tell you a story to get you oriented into what I claim happened. Now, do you believe me? That may depend on a lot of factors. Do you consider me to be a credible witness? You may not even know me. You shouldn’t put too much faith in someone you don’t know. Another question is how good my mind and memory are. Was it really 7,900 volts? Was I about to enter seventh grade?
Here’s another thing. My wife of nearly thirty years was also on that yearbook staff. If you put us in different rooms and asked us to tell everything we remember about that event, our stories would not completely match. They would be close because not only did we experience it together, but we have discussed it many times over the intervening years and have helped shape each others’ recollections of what happened. But if you asked any of the other people who experienced it, and who have not been discussing it together for years, I suspect the stories would differ in some important ways.
Your job as a listener to the various stories would be to make some decisions about which parts of the story are consistent and about what you think really happened. You might decide that some people are not credible witnesses for whatever reason.
If history is story, then what can we believe? I am not saying that history cannot communicate objective truth. I live in the United States of America. I know it has a real history of men and women who did real things in real places to secure the country’s identity as a nation. If I really want to know that history, I must read and listen to the stories told by those who witnessed it, or by those who have studied those original stories. Sometimes those stories are presented in letters, in artwork, in photographs, in oral tradition, and in other ways.
Why does this matter?
If you do not care where you are, where your nation and world came from, and why many of the current events are occurring, it may not matter to you. Most of us do care. We want to understand the historical forces at work that set in motion many of the conflicts in our world and many of the advances we benefit from and that we work to build on.
There are enough witnesses that Ben Franklin lived and did certain things that I can conclude that his life really happened. I can read things he wrote, including his autobiography. I can see depictions of what he looked like. I can hear the stories told by those who knew him. The existence of Ben Franklin is an objective truth to me even though I live centuries after his death. I arrived at that conviction through narratives or stories about him and about our nation.
While there are practical reasons to care about world and national history, there are also reasons to care about our personal history. Where did you come from? Where have you been? What has happened to you? This is why therapists exist and offer a valuable service to people. They can help explore personal pains, traumas, triumphs, and failures in the past that can have powerful impacts on people today and on their view of the future.
Story is powerful. It leads to action. Sad chapters of history have been written about nations drawn into devastating wars because they believed a story that was told about a rival nation that had wronged them in some way. Just as powerfully, our personal stories can lead us to action or inaction.
If listening to a compelling story can lead nations into war or shape our understanding of who we are and where we are going, I would say story is a very powerful force.
In the next post we will explore the difference between non-fiction and fiction stories.