Why Americans Can't Learn from History

We know the adage; it is repeated often: What we don't learn from history, we are doomed to repeat.

History is available as a source for study and understanding, comprehending how we can change from making war to exploring peace. We beseech and are beseeched; we lament the stubborn and tragic flaw of, "When will we ever learn?" We hold hands and chant and pray and feel the warmth of hope and yearning as well as with sadness at the sense that it is all an unattainable dream.

In reality, the lessons of history have only bred more of the same -- hatred for hatred, hatred for suffering, some brand of revenge, and fierce protests which bring about all too brief periods of tolerance. Even with the pockets of protest, the beat of hatred goes on. Even as our own nation begins another surge into perhaps another Vietnam, there are many of us having trouble believing that we could perhaps be repeating all of the mistakes from which we have allegedly learned.

On the whole, however, we have become -- or have always been -- dependent on hating the bad and championing the good as we have been instructed to see them without evolving in our capacity and motivation to see our own personal parts in the hate or the effects of any legacy of hate which lies congested inside us.

Our uniquely American insistence on winning and perfection goes hand-in-hand with the need to be right. That imperfections become hated only furthers our tendency to keep them in our shadows while we blame the "other" while feeling righteous in our vengeance. We come to feel the need to mask the underlying desperation and chaos that we sense just below the surface. In addition we live with our own belief systems (of which religion is emblematic), which have come to defy rational evidence that might cause us to question our proscribed systems of operation.

One reason we can't learn from history is that adding information to people who live in states of congested fear cannot make a positive impact. When anyone interprets information through the prism of pseudo-certainty and belief, any objective information -- as much as it ever can be objective -- becomes misinterpreted at best.

Even those people who are making valiant attempts to teach us the lessons of history tend to ignore the layers of emotional congestion in themselves and in others. Unless we all seek to know our own depths of desperation, we will not recognize the similarities we share with our actual enemies. And if we don't recognize the undermining forces within, we will be too distracted to teach or to learn.

For instance, think about the way almost every religion offers certainty about life and death. It is as if we have colluded in agreeing that religion shall pass through the gates to critical thinking without being stopped for questioning. Our inner need for the perpetuation of certainty-- especially in times of both conflict and conflicting evidence - remains, for the most part, unspoken. In other words, most of us still cling to what seems to hold us together, feeling fragile and brittle to the touch of any intrusion of real investigation that might lead to a change in perspective.

Even those of us who have worshipped intellect as a religion need to come to know our own fears of the darker and more sneaky sides of ourselves, for we do have them. Otherwise, we distance ourselves from the human condition, and ultimately we have nothing to teach. In addition, if we do not study our deeper and more desperate layers of fear, we will not be able to construct the practical supports without which people in places of terror will never move.

The idea of suggesting that we "cannot" learn from history is suggested here because of our urgent need to gain the capacity to do so. In terms of evolution and our place in ecology, we are called on to evolve beyond this tragic flaw of clinging to what keeps us falsely secure, choosing it over real knowledge of our own complexity and the complexities of our world.

I realize that there is risk in even initiating this discussion. Resistance to the acknowledgement of our own shadows runs high for anyone who is holding on for dear life to the myth that there is a set order of things, that we understand what it is and how it works. The greater risk, however, is that unless we consider a shift in perspective, we just might be forever lost.