Wednesday, June 02, 2010

History by Fact, or by Faith?

Some musings on how we interpret history

I've had a lot on my mind lately, and not just the myriad of responsibilities and concerns that need to be inserted into daily life before genealogy, research, writing, and many other things that are the breath of creativity for me.

I'm troubled that it seems like the more I learn, the less I know.

The more knowledge an individual acquires, the more it is realized that we (humans) do not, and cannot, have all the answers. You have probably heard it before, that history is subjective. History is only as accurate as the interpretation of the person recording it.

What did my family have for dinner last Thursday? Mom may think it was meatloaf, and I sort of remember salmon caesar, but I'm not certain, and my husband insists that we went out to eat that night and had steaks. Who is correct? Who do you believe? If you can come up with a date-inscribed photograph of my family sitting around a table eating dinner last Thursday, then you might come close to the truth. Or, do you? Is your camera imprinting dates correctly?

When it comes to genealogy, like any history topic, you can bag all the dates and related facts you want, but they will not help you create an entirely realistic picture of anyone's life or environment. You cannot count on 100% accuracy. What happens if the facts are not what they appear to be?

A retired pastor once told me: "The past is gone, and the future is uncertain, so, you really only have today." It was an attempt to help me let go of past hurts. It worked to some degree, once I took the time to ponder what he meant and how it applied to my life.

Today, THIS MOMENT, is the only thing you can be entirely sure about.

Or, can you?

When I entered the eighth grade, I was suddenly captured by visions of all things futuristic: "Star Trek," science-fiction novels, sci-fi conventions and futuristic artwork. It all hit me like an atomic bomb, and I spent hours and hours in libraries looking for new reading material (yes, this was pre-internet, folks). Perhaps it was my youthful age, but the romance of "what could be" seemed the most important thing in the world. My curiosity was sparked to learn about physics, astronomy, and science in general, to seek any understanding of how things came to be and why they work the way they do.

So, the future is uncertain. But, is the past much more reliable?

As a mature adult, I discovered how alluring history can be, especially when the old memorization torture tactics of school day history classes were thrown out the window. History looks quite different when taken personally--I mean, REALLY personally. This is the reason why we become hooked on genealogy and family history, in seeking a connection to our origins. We need to know what history means to us both genetically and spiritually, in addition to wondering about the perpetual mystery of why we exist, and was it really the egg, or the chicken, that came first.

Oh, I just love Sherlock Holmes and his dogged collection and interpretation of evidence. Dr. Watson has just as important a part in in these classic sleuthing adventures, because he is the sounding board Holmes needs to help piece together his theories. We have all done it: researched the facts, found discrepancies, mulled it all over--either alone or with friends and family--and come to a "logical" conclusion. Even so, there are outcomes that cannot be logical, because there are simply not enough facts, and there never will be.

Case in point: did you see the recently aired History Channel documentary: "The Real Face of Jesus?" It knocked me out. I mean, it simply knocked me out. If you are unfamiliar with the story of the Shroud of Turin and the lengthy, ongoing investigation of whether or not it is the actual burial cloth that wrapped Jesus after his crucifiction, there is plenty of reading material available, online and otherwise. This program pulled together a thrilling investigation that utilized science in a attempt to prove history. I say: "attempt," because science, like everything else, is not infallable. That said, I believe that physics and mathematics prove that there is such a thing as universal truth.

To continue, this History Channel documentary shows the scientific and artistic methods used to create a 3-D representation of the image mysteriously recorded on the Shroud of Turin, whom many believe to be Jesus Christ. In the end, it is nothing short of fantastic how we can come to gaze upon a likeness of this man from so long ago. It is truly amazing by virtue of the modern scientific methods that enable such a venture, even if the image is of someone other than Jesus himself.

The entire point of this particular history-mystery is the lack of "evidence," and the sensitve, even volatile issues concerning the interpretation of whether the image is of Jesus or someone else, and how it came to be. While reading about the history of the Shroud of Turin, you may come to the conclusion, as do many others, that although there is not enough hard evidence to scientifically prove that the image on the shroud is that of Jesus, there is probably enough circumstantial evidence to prove it in a court of law.

History by faith? I don't necessarily mean religious faith. Which of the "facts" do you accept? What part of the story do you discount as factual? Unfortunately, this is one history-mystery where the solution will always be relinquished not to fact, but to personal opinion.

Conscientious genealogists and historians want to come as close to the truth as possible.

Assuming that we can never be 100% accurate in our reporting of history, the best we can do, then, is to be thoughtful and open-minded in our consideration of all "facts" presented to us. Sometimes, stories or memories do not mesh with each other, and then it is up to us to weigh the choices and determine what is likely the truth.

When I was very young, my grandfather's eyes looked sparkling blue, but my mother tells me they were blue-gray. Will I cling to my own early memory instead of accepting Mom's statement about her own father as truth? Probably not in this case, because her interpretation of the evidence as an adult would likely have been more accurate than mine as a young child.

You cannot even be entirely certain of a primary resource: a personal journal, for example. If I record my thoughts and impressions in a diary to leave them for generations to come, the only thing my descendants can really be certain of is that the writings will represent me, but they are not necessarily historical "truth." What if I choose to discuss a topic in a wishful-thinking mode, but this bent toward fantasy is unclear to the reader? What if I tell a little white lie out of not wanting to offend someone, or worse, spread a rumor about something I am not certain is true? What can a researcher trust, anyway?

How about sensitive issues concerning a person's character? A family member tells that your mutual ancestor could not join the U.S. Army during WWI due to an old injury, so he went to Canada to join up with the Canadian forces and participate in the Allied war effort. Another family member tells you that the ancestor crossed the border to Canada in order to avoid getting drafted by the U.S. Army, but was caught, and made to enlist in the Canadian forces. Whom do you believe? Whom do you want to believe? We must be very careful when considering disparate stories, because choosing the wrong one can ruin someone's credibility... or, your own.

Will we ever be able to check our interpretation of history against the experiences of those who lived it? Many a historian longs for the perverbial time machine in order to visit the past and re-live historical events firsthand. Don't we just wish we could cut to the chase and see what happened for ourselves?

When Professor Hawking talks time travel, I listen.

Stephen Hawking, a brilliant and eminent physicist of our time, admits he would be the first to want to travel back in time and visit Marilyn Monroe in her prime, but he also thinks that this could never be.

According to Hawking, who holds Sir Isaac Newton's chair as the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University in England, a one-way ticket to the future is entirely possible: all you need is something to get you traveling very, very fast.

Photo: Prof. Stephen Hawking in front of the clock that eats time, designed for Christi College at Cambridge. The clock represents the philosophy that "once a minute is gone you can't get it back." The grasshopper atop the clock is designed to "swallow" time as it passes.

But, he thinks time travel into the past is unlikely is because of the destructive nature of feedback. As sound enters a microphone, if too much sound reaches the speakers and travels back to the microphone, it goes around in a loop and gets louder each time, eventually destroying the sound system if no action is taken. Hawking theorizes that radiation within a wormhole, or other such potential time travel portal, would react much the same as sound. The resulting feedback would soon destroy any portal used in an attempt to go back in time.

I'm sorry if this scientific theory bursts your bubble, but it looks like we may all have to continue piecing history together for ourselves, since it seems history may not be able to speak to us directly.

I hope I have inspired you to see that truth does not necessarily lie within the "facts." Still, what is the answer to this dilemna? I, for one, will continue to view historical data with the proper respect, but also with a critical eye. After careful consideration, I may actually choose to discount collected data and accept parts of history on faith.

To quote Albert Einstein, another eminent scientist who helped us to make sense of time, the universe, and everything: "Imagination is more important than knowledge."

Good advice, Albert.