Westerners tend to think of history as linear, like a stock market chart. History is progressing, things are constantly getting better and, if things start to get worse, it’s the start of a regression that will only get worse and worse.
It’s at time like this that I like to read books about the past or books that are set in the past. Not books that make the past look rosy – not looking at the past through rose-colored glasses, wishing we could go back to a time when, in our memories, every day was sunny and clear, except Christmas Eve when it snowed everywhere for a day of cozy Christmas memories. Books that show us how bad things have gotten in the past, because then history changed again.
Right now I’m reading the Swedish Per Wahloo and Maj Showall mysteries, written in the 70s. These are police mysteries, set at a time when there was a huge internal conflict in the Swedish, a war between a militarized, fascist wing of the police who sought to crush conflicts and a small internal rearguard of detectives who grimly went about the business of finding murderers and bringing them to justice, often against a backdrop of police riots and public rejection. As I read, I am reminded that things in the U.S. were not much better at that time. And it feels like today’s history rhymes with this.
Before this I read Connie Willis’s The Doomsday Book, set in the future, where a young historian is sent back in time to study life in the Middle Ages, just before the plague. Only an unknown respiratory epidemic, sweeping through her college town, strikes the time machine technician and causes him to distort the coordinates just as she is being sent back. As the future community finds itself where we were last April – unfathomable death tolls, crippled hospitals, lockdowns, toilet paper shortages – the history student finds herself caught up in a mystery: what’s going on in the small community where she has found herself? Where are the men of the family she’s embedded with? Who are the women hiding from and why? All answered in a terrible way, suddenly, plunging her into the nightmare of the plague. She was inoculated before being sent back in time so she can’t get sick herself – but the emotional and psychological toll is devastating, as she faces what so many faced in the middle-ages. A pandemic that swept around the world again and again, surging, diminishing, wiping out entire communities, then disappearing, only to return again in newer, more virulent, more terrifying forms. People fled, carrying it with them, or fleeing from flood into fire. This was not a good time to have to survive.
I found one of my favorite history books in a used bookstore, a history of cholera. We don’t think about cholera much in the U.S. today but, at one time, it killed a huge number of Americans each year. When you walk past certain churches in NYC, you wonder why you look up to look into the churchyard. It’s because there were so many people to bury that they buried them in layers. If you read about the Oregon trail, it often swept through wagon trains, picking off children – or parents, leaving entire familes of children orphans.
Another favorite, Dirt, talks about the cyclical devastation that humans have inflicted on, literally, the earth. When we think about agricultural ecological disasters, we tend to think of the dust bowl of the 30s, a time when the topsail from the bread basket turned to dust and blew across the country, finally darkening the windows of the capital in Washington D.C., forcing the partisans warring there to face the reality they were up against. But this was not the first or the only time that the U.S. faced a similar problem: in the 1800’s, over-farmed areas in the East faced an earth so parched that they thought it would never recover.
Things often look dire. In the 1960s, promising young men who wanted to change the status quo were assassinated by those who feared change.
Historically, Congresspeople and Presidents have done foolish things, blatantly hypocritical things, obviously designed to retain office and prevent progress. There have always been people who pass laws to try to hold people they don’t like down because of their race or their gender or their immigrant status. The Irish of the 1890s and the Germans of the 1930s would recognize the experiences of the Immigrants of today, the anger, the discrimination, the fear-mongering.
If you are like me, and compulsively doom-scroll the news, reading articles about climate change and gerrymandering, and new strains of Covid, and people who fear the vaccine more than the disease yet still refuse to mask because somehow that has become a symbol of rebellion – rebellion against a world that doesn’t live up to the promise of the American Dream that they had bought into, of a world that the news and social media tell them is a bad, scary place that they should be afraid of. Studies have shown that fear causes people to make conservative decisions.
So, somehow, counterintuitively, reading about the low points in history, the points when humans faced their greatest challenges, reassures me because things were bad, and they got better. Things may look bad now but there is the potential for them to get better.
When I look back at my own life, I see this as well. When I am very stressed out and it feels like nothing is going right – the apartment is a mess, my to-do list at work is overwhelming and everyone wants more, some health problem is bothering me, I can’t seem to get traction and rebuild a practice of meditation and exercise and healthy eating – I can look back in my own life and recognize that I’ve been here before and have come through it, and I can again.
The future is not written yet.
And that, to me, is promising.