History Lessons


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At some early age I glimpsed that my entire universe was as miniscule in the grand scheme of things as the gnats I batted away on sultry summer days.  It dawned on me that countless other children like me had come and gone, century after century.  I’d discovered history.

The bravery of people in bygone eras entranced me. Would I ever dare embrace such trials and tribulations? I painstakingly mastered the johnny-cake recipe in my third grade workbook, sealing my bond with kids who had traveled up-river on rafts and through prairie grass on covered wagons, once-upon-a-time.

But it wasn’t long before I realized that history was mostly about a million incarnations of suffering, brought on often enough by natural disasters, but most consistently by human beings. Children no different from me had endured unimaginable cruelty, wrought by the larger-than-life kings and generals who clearly ran history. The king’s selfish whims, announced in his far-away palace, controlled children’s lives while the children had no control over the king’s.  It seemed capricious to me, as indeed it is.

Another great irony eventually struck me. Looking back at history, you knew what was coming. You knew when the tidal wave was going to arrive. But living forward, you never knew the next moment, so you just cluelessly carried on with your all-consuming routines. No matter if the monster waited stealthily on the sidelines, ready to pounce and destroy, and carry you into an entirely new reality.

Anything might create the upheaval. Historical crises seemed to arrive in grand, random spurts:  Viking raids on peaceful villages, slave traders carrying off your neighbors, forced marches of the Cherokee, blood baths of the Civil War. Could my own all-absorbing life be similarly disrupted? It seemed as improbable as a fairy-tale, yet history was not reassuring.

Like many young girls, I was haunted by Anne Frank’s diary.  The ordinariness of her routine, the complete absorption in her relationships. I knew what was coming. She did not.

But would it have made any difference? Don’t we all just carry on because that’s all we know how to do?

After giving birth to my daughter I gazed out the window of my hospital room at the thick smog, and wondered whether I’d had the right to bring a baby into this toxic environment we’d managed to create for ourselves. But then I was swept into the daily acts of changing diapers and sweet walks to the park.

Pregnant with my son when Chernobyl leaked its poisons, I was overrun by terror for a few moments. I asked myself as I watched my daughter rolling down a grassy hillside: was life as we knew it going to finally wind to a halt? Then I returned home to cook supper.

At my son’s christening I suddenly choked up as I prayed for the end of the arms race.  But then I forgot to care.  I threw a wonderful party.

How much does it matter that in all those centuries before radio or television or internet, wars and witch hunts and pillagings and massacres usually arrived out of the blue? Did people behave any differently when the dead body was actually hanging from the scaffold right in the town square, or soldiers were going door to door, as long as it wasn’t their own?

What is this disturbing yet oddly endearing survival strategy human beings have always had, to be convinced in the midst of creeping disaster that what really matters is whether there is enough salt in the soup, the baby has been burped, or a stitch has been dropped?

These kinds of questions have been much on my mind lately because I have observed how so many of us are managing to live our daily lives while we sense cataclysm welling up all around us and among us, unseen, and eerily reminding us of history we had relegated to textbooks.

Already in our neighborhoods, immigrant mothers hole themselves up with their anxious children, afraid to venture out to the grocery store. Epic cataclysm has already arrived for Syrians and millions of others, as they flee murderous violence, only to find themselves tossed about by edicts and the brutal whimsy of powerful strangers. It seems as if half the world is on the move, and the other half is terrified of being robbed of their own sense of normalcy.  Are these normal times for some but not others? For the lucky, but not the unlucky?

Meanwhile, what have I been doing, besides re-learning the drop-in-the-bucket skills of political activism?  I’ve carried on, as we all do when the calamity has not yet marked the portal of our own house. I’ve welcomed a new grandchild into the world.  I’ve invited old friends over for home-made pizza. At the learning center where I spend half-days, I’ve hunkered down at my computer to write reports, and coaxed a sixth grader to put together a coherent paragraph. I’ve Skyped with my daughter and her baby, who is beginning to smile at me from three thousand miles away.

But I am as baffled as ever.  How is it that all normal activities do not grind to a halt while we engage with the dragon breathing fire at the city gates?  What amazing adaptability human beings are graced with!  Is this how we have survived history’s sweeps, and will survive them yet again? Or is there something new that is called for, a lesson we are finally able to learn?

You might enjoy reading my book exploring childhood experiences and insights, Ollie Ollie In Come Free: A Memoir of Swallowed Time.Visit www.annebernardbecker.com or https://www.amazon.com/Ollie-Come-Free-Memoir-Swallowed/dp/162652968X

Published by Anne Becker

Anne Bernard Becker is the author of Ollie Ollie In Come Free: A Memoir of Swallowed Time. Her book, published in October, 2014, explores the impact of her three older siblings' deaths on her childhood and growth in to adulthood, and is based on seven years in psychoanalysis in the 1980's and '90's. Anne grew up in South Bend, Indiana, and studied at Indiana University, the Sorbonne, University of Pennsylvania (M.A. in French) and Fordham University (M.A. in Religious Education). In 1978 she took a position as a campus and parish minister in Cincinnati. Since 2001 she has worked at a learning center as a reading specialist. Anne facilitates Family Constellation workshops that blend her ongoing interest in history, psychology and spirituality to explore the effects of ancestral trauma on family systems. A mother of three grown children, Anne lives with her husband Gerry in Cincinnati.

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  1. The human heart and brain are indeed marvelous and versatile instruments of coping. I remember living Italy in the 1970s when the Red Brigade resisting Facisim engaged in kidnapping, murder, robberies and bombing. Even though we were faced with almost daily bombs going off at bus stops, street markets and train stations, we commiserated with our neighbors then went off to catch the bus and to shop at the markets with a glance over our shoulder and a prayer on our lips that we would return home again without harm. My husband and I daringly took the train for a Christmas ski vacation in the Italian Alps even though that was the most popular time for the train bombs. What were we thinking? I don’t remember for sure but I am guessing we were hedging our bets, hoping that we would be counted in the large percentages of the lucky ones and that our Christmas would be bright and there would be a few inches of fresh powder.

  2. Thanks Anne.
    Beautifully written and very thought provoking. How can I prepare and what can I do to change what will one day be history? I must do something today because I will become part of this history tomorrow.


  3. Anne, once again, I am blown away by your gift of putting into words what I’m sure is on the hearts of so many of us, who do not have the words to express it. Thank you for being faithful to your gift of writing. I think it will be helpful for others to read, not because you provide an answer, but because you bring to the surface what is so rarely spoken, helping it see the light of day. Consciousness always seems a necessary a first step to any positive change to come.

  4. Thank you, Anne, for powerfully describing the tension that human beings live in in order to be human! I continue to believe that the tragedies wrought by humans need not be one side of the tension equation. For me, the “normal” activities of life do indeed bring balance every time I am present and intentional – mindful – of my actions, thought and speech in the moment.

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