Thursday, July 05, 2012

Thinking in Time

The title of today's post comes from the book Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision-Makers, by Richard Neustadt and Ernest May ... a brilliant analysis of how people in positions of leadership carefully study history to help guide their actions, and then draw the wrong lessons and end up making abysmally bad decisions.

Rather like today's extreme right wing politicians and shouting heads, but that's a topic we'll take up in a different post. Today, I'm thinking in terms of my own place in time.

As you know if you've been visiting this little corner of cyberspace for very long, I have a deep love of history. I like to think of history not as a dry recitation of events that took place long ago, but as a collection of events caused by real people who had real lives and families and relationships and day-to-day cares (as my mother was fond of saying, even Hitler had a mommy). We think of history in terms of the grand events that are documented in the books our teachers make us read, but not in terms of the mundane things that happened around those great events. We know about Napoleon's great military victories, but we never think that he was a fellow who had to go to the bathroom just like the rest of us. The Egyptian pharaohs built the pyramids, but what did they do to kick back and relax in the evenings, after a long day of flogging slaves and playing god?

What about our individual places in the endless timeline of history? I've always found it fascinating that I was born in 1951 - less than 100 years after Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House to end the Civil War, 33 years after the end of the First World War, and a mere ten years after Pearl Harbor. During my lifetime, man landed on the moon for the first (and, so far, last) time, and I've looked in wonder at brilliant photographs of distant planets and galaxies taken by spacecraft that were undreamed of when I was born.

We tend to remember where we were and what we were doing when historical events happened. When Sister Eileen, the principal of my grade school back in Pittsburgh, announced that President Kennedy had been shot, I remember sitting at my desk and looking out the window, expecting to see Russian paratroopers falling out of the sky. When Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, I was hiking in the middle of the Sangre de Cristo mountains of Colorado ... I learned of the feat about a week after the fact. When the First Gulf War broke out, I was sitting in the parking lot of the local high school, waiting for my daughter to come out after some school event or another.

Think about your place in history. Most of us probably will never be remembered for our role in major, world-shaking events, but each of us has an impact on the future - if only in the way we raise our children. And as for what lessons we draw from the past, let's be careful about what we think we've learned from history ... as Neustadt and May have shown, wrong interpretations can lead to terrible policies and decisions.

As Mark Twain once famously said (and many others have quoted later), "It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so."

Have a good day. Think about your place, however humble, in history. More thoughts tomorrow.



The Mistress of the Dark said...

Right now I can only think of how dang hot it is going to be...

Duckbutt said...

Wrong interpretations are often driven by faulty or incomplete information. And sometimes, inaction is the best policy.

eViL pOp TaRt said...

I have a very clear, detailed recollection of the day of Katrina. Also 9-11.

Big Sky Heidi said...

I was in school back in Franklin when we got the news about 9-11. Mama checked us all out that day, just as a precaution.

Mike said...

I barely remember the big events let alone the mundane things.