Most of us tend to look at history from a bird’s-eye view (or a zeppelin’s eye view, ’cause I wanna be cute). We’re trained to do so in history classes and in analysis. Even with the intimacy of names and dates of birth, death, and achievements, we still experience history as observers, rather than the end result of it all. The long view allows us the illusion of a step back into what appears to be the position of disinterested observer (it’s not, really, but that’s a subject for another time). It’s that separation that usually inspires the great snooze when it comes to studying or thinking about all that’s gone before. But where history reaches in and grabs you is not in the names and the dates, but the stories about people. It all goes back to stories about people.
The most interesting history I encounter (and some of it that I try to share on this blog) is the tales of how history was made by people who actually didn’t necessarily set about to “make history” at the time. Bertha Benz didn’t set out to “make history” – she put her kids in the horseless and made a road trip to see mother. The concepts of Roosevelt’s New Deal weren’t thrust on the American people as purely a way to make a mark on history, they sprung up from shared misfortune and the attitude that helping each other could, in fact, be helped along from the top down as well as from the bottom up.
At 30,000 feet, we can see the shapes of concepts like culture, worldview, and prevailing attitudes and mores. We can observe the tidal patterns of human pathos and ethos as it ebbs and surges over concepts that define us as thinking, reasoning beings. What we don’t or can’t see at that high level are the individual ways of expressing (or rebelling against) those cultural tides. At that high level, we miss the tiny drips and eddies that will turn ripples into tidal waves down the line.
The real story–and the real pleasure in studying history–comes from digging up or envisioning those tiny, beginning ripples that don’t yet know they’ll change the world.