A Past That Is Never Too Late to Share

When George Santayana, the philosopher, poet and novelist said in Madrid in 1863 words which were later repeated by Churchill on the eve of the Second World War, “Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it,” they were obviously talking about the current events of their time. Yet as I get further along in years, I realize that we foolishly focus on the latter part of the phrase pertaining to the lessons of the past, in a desperate act of second-guessing events and their implications. Using the past to patch up current crises is like putting a finger in the dyke to hold it from collapse. The true genius of the saying is less about ‘repeating it and more about ‘learning from it.

I just saw a documentary on the Korean War, about which people of my generation, and younger, generally know little. I listened to the horror stories of the aging veterans of that disastrous war as they spoke of what they had experienced, and I realized that as they depart us, they are taking with them not only the events of their times, but the lessons they have learned as well.

When thinking about the value of past experience, I feel paralyzed, yet again, by the realization that all that I know, and all that I am still learning, will also be lost one day, without it making much of a mark. Besides my family and friends, who will ever know what I have seen and learned in life?

However necessary the changing of the generation is for the evolution of society, the sad fact is that we bury much more than people in their passing on. We actually lay our past to rest, and we very rarely ever learn from it. This gives me a sense of urgency to enshrine a whisper into the future, where I can tell the coming generations of what I have known or what things were like when… But sadly, all our hard-earned wisdom will be gone with us, just when it will be most needed.

Another sad part of our limitation, with regards to learning from the past, is our fragmented mindset. We invest most of our time on areas with which we are most familiar because of our roots in their events. Southerners learn about their past and slaves learn about their heritage, Indians turn naturally to their culture and Irishmen learn about their past experiences. As a Jew and a refugee, I have naturally invested most into my history and my people’s collective experience. Thus, we become islands whose isolated knowledge is held within its binding and separated from the rest of the events and knowledge in the library of our times.

We need not be Renaissance men, but how can we truly learn anything worthwhile if we limit our interest to what is current or what is only interesting to us? It is our blind spots that allow unfortunate events to take place—for dictators to rise, for unnecessary wars to take place, for prejudice and hate to engulf us and for disastrous policies to devastate us.

I recently listened to Jon Meacham speak with admiration about George Herbert Walker Bush, whose biography he recently authored, and I realize how little I had understood his presidency. I grasped how overly focused I was on so many other urgent matters to truly comprehend what was happening right in front of my own eyes. We practically cannot see the forest for the trees. Yet I realize that this too is part of the process of our self-correction and I do not despair, but run to chronicle my experience in this hopefully not too lengthily-worded piece, hoping that it will help others to see these truths a few minutes earlier than I have.

I recently had the privilege of watching the play Hamilton, which is a remarkable production, not only because of its great entertainment experience, but also mainly because it managed to transport a whole page of history onto the stage and bring it to life right in front of our eyes. On the stage, I could more vividly see the critical issues of that era, than from all the history lessons I had read and learned in the past. I wondered how we can learn from it? How can we bring the past alive, outside of conflict and strife, and into the imagination of people who might otherwise never get a chance to peer into the past? Why must history lessons be a boring pouring over books, with long lists of names, dates and places to memorize, when we could help bring them alive in poetry, prose, plays, songs and dances?

I know that I am not the person to write or produce something of this magnitude, but I might as well share this epiphany, so that perhaps someone out there hears this whisper of mine and shapes it into something new that carries the enlivened past into the future.

It says in the book of Job that “Wisdom is with the aged, and understanding in length of days,” but it shouldn’t stop us from sharing our knowledge. May we open our bound-up memories and share our pages around to compile one large volume of better life experience.

About the Author
Soli now lives in the US, but he was born in Romania and later lived in Israeli boarding school Hadasim, as part of the Aliyat Hanoar. He served in the Israeli Air Force, and graduated with a degree in architecture from the Technion. After settling in Jaffa, he moved to the US and had several businesses. He has been married for 37+ years, and is the father of 4 and grandfather of 4.
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