Why Personal History is Important
This may seem like an odd question to ask, as many people believe personal history is very important.
On the other hand, others say we should strictly focus on the present and not be dragged down by our histories.
I think both viewpoints have some validity for different reasons. There is a middle ground which both makes use of personal history while keeping a strong foothold in the present and interest in moving forward.
I believe this middle ground is by far the most productive approach and this is why:
Every present moment contains all that’s come before it in the past, and also holds the seeds to the future. Time is a continuum. And where we are at every moment is tied to where we were and where we are going.
The only way this does not apply is if you are speaking on a very metaphysical plane that is beyond time, but for our purposes here, we are working within time.
If you think about the current culture you live in today regardless of what country or continent you reside in, you immediately will get a picture in your mind of how that culture used to be also. If I think of American culture as it is right now, I automatically compare it to how it was when I was a little girl, or when I was in high school or college, or what it was like when my son was born, and so forth. I see today as part of a continuum of history that encompasses the time I have existed and lived in this culture. My sense of being an American is felt as a big panoramic picture show over time, and I know it through my own experiences. Moreover, my sense of myself incorporates my identity as a member of that culture.
Personal family histories are the same. If I consider my personality right now, my values, beliefs, behaviors, habits, thought patterns, and emotional patterns, I see them as not only existing in the present moment, but as part of a developmental process that has occurred over time. I easily access the places I have lived, the family members I have lived with at different ages, the schools I’ve gone to, the climates I’ve lived in, the friends I’ve had, and the great multitude of experiences that create the colors of my life. If I took all of that out, my sense of self right now would be very one-dimensional, overly simplified, colorless, and probably somewhat empty.
As human beings, we are works in progress from the time we enter the womb until we die, and for many who believe in afterlife or reincarnation, we have been before and will be after. Either way, we are always developing.
So to look at ourselves in the present, we must give due to our developmental process.
By paying attention to our personal histories, we can gain greater control over the direction of our future development. Instead of floating through the stream of life with no control over the direction, our histories help us grab the steering wheel when we want to go in a particular direction.
Secondly, having a good understanding and grasp on where we have come from and what we have incorporated or internalized as our sense of self from that history, gives us a starting point to transcend it.
More simply put, we can become more than who we were or who we are now. We can sift through the elements of our histories and consciously decide what serves us well in the present that we want to keep, and what is an obstacle that we want to resolve or discard.
Our histories are very much a part of who we are, but they don’t have to be the defining rule by which we measure ourselves. We are not really stuck even if it seems at times that we are.
What I personally love about having a historical view is that there are always endless possibilities for change.
- We can be creative and expansive.
- We can be who we want to be.
- We can take those qualities about ourselves we like and build upon them.
- We can delve into the “core” us, make foundational changes if we want, and move forward.
Personal history used this way is actually freeing.
The other extremely important aspect of attending to history is learning from it.
There is no better teacher than experience.
Education gives us an intellectual picture of how things are, but experience is how we know how things are.
You know the example of telling a child not to touch the stove because it’s hot, and they touch it anyway. That’s because they really couldn’t know what was meant by the stove being hot without the real experience of it. I am of course not suggesting we all go around touching stoves!! Wise children who trust that their parents know what they are talking about may take their word for it and avoid that experiential pain. Nevertheless, it was the parent’s knowledge and experience that was passed down to the child as something learned. Moreover, the something learned was a way to avoid pain and stay safe based on previous experience.
History gives us lessons daily about what has worked and what hasn’t. Cultures that don’t pay attention closely to the lessons of history are bound to repeat them over and over until they get them. The same is true for the individual.
If we don’t learn the lessons of the moment, we are bound to repeat them until we do get it. Ignorance is not bliss in this case. What you know, you can take charge of. What you don’t see can affect you in ways you have no control over, and not always for the positive.
There is an exercise offered in the blog entitled An Exercise to Work with Your Personal History: What I Got From My Parents. It’s a good starting place for working with your personal history.