An embarrassingly short time ago I finally began to understand history.
I am a confirmed history buff. Unfortunately, I’ve only recently tried looking at history from the perspective of those experiencing it, rather than from my own place in the time stream.
A classic example from my childhood: growing up on the campus of Sheldon Jackson College in Sitka, Alaska, I heard stories from staff who had been there during World War II. Japonski Island, adjacent to Sitka, housed a potentially formidable coastal defense system. Every morning, a squadron of planes departed from there to patrol the coast. Our storytellers told us that the school could not start classes until everyone could hear the patrol return to base. The entire community held its collective breath, waiting to learn if the Japanese threatened the coast.
In my child’s mind, I saw this as misguided. The Japanese did invade Alaska, but they landed in the Aleutians, far, far to the west of Sitka. In fact, the military installed few if any artillery pieces in the Japonski Island fortifications before the focus of the Pacific War shifted elsewhere.
What I failed to appreciate then was that at the time, no one knew what course the war would take! They did not enjoy the historical hindsight I did. Sadly, this point of view pervaded my subconscious long after logic and education revealed my error to myself.
This inadequate perspective never really changed until I began reading more apocalyptic fiction (see Read These Books . . . BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE!). At a certain point in enjoying these visions of bleak, imaginary futures, I suddenly realized that millions of people have experienced these situations in real life—in the past.
Consider the victims of the Nazi concentration camps. Those that died there realized a once-unthinkable dystopian future! Their last perceptions likely included a knowledge that their world had come to this moment. This same point of view applies to anyone who died in that war, and any war that’s ever been fought! Those that died in the great influenza epidemic at the end of World War I did so in the middle of a global pandemic. They don’t know that humankind survived. In many ways, that doesn’t matter. Their personal apocalypse came to them, and that’s all they could know. On a personal level, dystopian futures are continually being realized every moment of every day as each sentient being arrives at the end of their own future.
This small shift has changed my outlook profoundly. The part of me that learns of horrors in our history, but says, “it’s all right, though, conditions improved after that” has been largely silenced. It becomes a matter of scale. The world may not end for everyone at the same time, but it does end for individuals, many of which have perceived the arrival of a very bleak future.
Ironically, it has also deepened my appreciation for apocalyptic fiction. Imagining the fictional characters’ conditions in light of history’s true-to-life dystopian futures increases my empathy and involvement in the story. And, chillingly, the implicit question, “how could things have gotten this bad?” must be answered: “It already has, again and again throughout our history.”