At the heart of every young history buff is an insatiable desire to understand some part of what it was like to live at points in the past. Then, you get a little older. You live through a few things.
That history enthusiast, by age 30, starts to realize he’s lived through things that will be part of history. At some unspeakable point, that history nut — like everyone else — comes to a point in life where he realizes he, too, will be part of history.
I was that young history nut in the early ‘80s, growing up on stories of a great-uncle who was killed in Normandy in the awful weeks after D-Day. My yearning to know more about him and his experiences put me on a path to become a high school history teacher; and by the time I was 30, I was starting to teach events that I’d lived through as an adult; the 2000 election, 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq.
And in 2011, at age 36, I was prematurely gifted the knowledge that I’d be part of history sooner than later. I was diagnosed with late-stage kidney cancer, in the best shape of my life, with a career I loved and three kids and a wife I loved more.
After the initial shock passed, I found myself with entirely more in common with the men and women twice my age whom I interviewed as part of my history projects than with my contemporaries. All of us facing our mortality, grappling with our lives and our legacy. I find myself wholly obsessed with three things:
Life. Living it. Not letting a second go to waste. Meetings, committees, debates … these have little attraction to me anymore. Instead it’s hikes, dinners with friends, laughing into the night with my family, experiencing everything one can experience while it’s possible, soaking in every moment I can.
Death. Understanding it. Our society has a really unhealthy view of the one true inevitability. We avoid talking about it in polite company, we avoid planning for it, we shush people down when they talk about it. Let’s talk about it more openly. Let’s try to make peace with it, even as we try to stave it off!
History. In the seven years since diagnosis, my professional interest in the past has become intensely more personal, and I try harder to understand the difference between history and memory. The further I get, the more questions there are than answers. How do our perceptions of the past differ from the cold, brutal facts? What parts of our personal and collective pasts have we built up into something they never were? Which parts of our pasts have we forgotten? How do we reconcile what we want to be with what we are?
I hope you’ll join me for parts of this journey every couple weeks in this space, and explore all three.